GAWU says absence of GuySuCo Board worrying, calls for decisive action on sugar industry

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The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) at its General Council meeting on June 22, 2018 expressed its displeasure over the absence of a Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) Board of Directors since February, of this year.

acting Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of GuySuCo, Paul Bhim

According to GAWU, the meeting unanimously approved a resolution calling on the Government of Guyana to “stop twiddling its thumbs and to end the confusion and indecision that is now stifling the sugar industry.”

The Council in addressing the GuySuCo Board issue, among other things, noted that the “absence stymies work towards the approval and implementation of plans that seek to put the industry on a sounder footing following the securing of some $30B from the Government-backed bond. The resolution also called on the Government to appoint a competent Board with a mandate to maintain the operations of Albion, Blairmont and Uitvlugt estates and to involve the workers organizations to assist in putting GuySuCo on a sustainable path.”

In late April, Agriculture Minister Noel Holder revealed that Cabinet was looking at some new names for the new Board.

Minister of Agriculture Noel Holder

Two weeks later, NICIL published the names of the new Board, naming the Head of the Special Purpose Unit (SPU) Heath-London as Chairman. A full-page ad had detailed that the new Board was approved by Cabinet on February 26, 2018.

Minister of State Joseph Harmon had said the same day that there were some issues with regard to the timing of the ad and Cabinet was reviewing the matter.

But despite these statements, Government had made it clear that the Board of Directors of GuySuCo, headed by Professor Clive Thomas, is the legitimate one. The life of that Board expired on February 14. The new Board, which was named with Heath-London as the head was gazetted at the Deeds and Commercial Registry.

When questioned recently on the appointment of the new Board, acting Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of GuySuCo, Paul Bhim was quoted in the media as saying that GuySuCo is still operating without a Board.

In fact, reports had surfaced about disagreements allegedly between Ministers from the two coalition parties regarding the chairmanship and members of the GuySuCo Board.

Only recently Opposition Leader Dr Bharrat Jagdeo noted that months had already passed and the Government was still to decide on a new Board for GuySuCo.

He noted also that because of the ad-hoc manner in which this once very important sector of the local economy is being handled, there was no doubt that things could only get worse.

“How does Government’s actions inspire any confidence? We might just have a collapse of what is left,” Jagdeo, making reference to the remaining sugar estates, said.

Safety nets

Meanwhile, GAWU at its meeting also expressed concern with the situation that now confronts thousands of Guyanese in the communities linked to the now closed Skeldon, Rose Hall, East Demerara and Wales Estates.

“The General Council was very upset to learn about the tragedies that jobless workers now face and the serious challenges the ex-sugar workers and their families experience on a daily basis. In a resolution, the meeting called on the Administration to implement a programme of safety nets to address the sad realities the workers now face” said GAWU.

Moreover, GAWU made reference to GuySuCo refusing to engage the Union in collective bargaining, even though this is required by law.

The meeting, according to GAWU, noted that engagements between the Union and the Corporation could not be held up as collective bargaining, while outlining that GuySuCo did not engage in good faith discussions.

As such, the Council said it called on GuySuCo to engage the Union and to address, meaningfully, “the plight of the sugar workers who are hard-pressed by the challenges of contemporary life.”

Redundancy pay

According to GAWU, the meeting was also dismayed regarding the “disrespect”  surrounding  the retrenched sugar workers of the now closed estates and their redundancy pay.

The Council noted that “though the Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Act was clear and unambiguous and that workers entitlements should be fully settled at the end of their notice period, the GuySuCo and the Government proceeded to pay workers whose entitlement exceeded $500,000 in two (2) halves, with the latter half still outstanding at this time. On this score, the meeting approved a resolution calling on the Government to respect the law and pay the workers their outstanding entitlements forthwith.”

Government’s handling of the sugar industry since it assumed office in 2015 has received  criticisms not only from the workers themselves but local economists and international experts.

File photo: retrenched sugar workers

In November of 2017, GuySuCo first announced plans to dismiss thousands of workers, which it did. GAWU said the downsizing and subsequent closure of sugar estates would lead to the loss of more than 15,000 jobs, and the potential threat of poverty for 50,000 to 100,000 people.

In May 2017, Government announced plans to close the Enmore and Rose Hall Sugar Estates, sell the Skeldon Sugar Factory, reduce the annual production of sugar, and take on the responsibility of managing the drainage and irrigation services offered by GuySuCo.

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