With the two major parties within the coalition (APNU/AFC) Government seeming to be at loggerheads over the direction that the now curtailed sugar industry is heading, Opposition Leader Dr Bharrat Jagdeo is of the firm view 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.
Jagdeo noted that months have already passed and the Government was still to decide on a new Board for the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo).
Exacerbating that situation is the confusion which is currently surrounding the appointment of Directors for the said Board.
In late April, Agriculture Minister Noel Holder revealed that Cabinet was looking at some new names for the new Board.
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.
According to filings on March 1, 2018, there were several documents including a copy of the Cabinet decision of the new Board, notice of change of Directors and consent forms to be Directors. There were also supporting documents that listed the members of the new Board as the same.
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. It was reported in early March that Finance Minister Winston Jordan had allegedly proposed for Heath-London to be the Chairman of the new GuySuCo Board after the previous body had expired. The purported proposal was reportedly not accepted by the entire Cabinet.
Agriculture Minister Holder has said that Cabinet was still continuing deliberations on the appointment of a Board of Directors for GuySuCo, adding that new names are being looked at and it may take some time before an announcement is made.
However the Opposition Leader, who was a former President, said, “This is a five-minute decision…bring all the names to the table and make a decision…(David) Granger is taking forever to make a simple decision,” he said.
Only recently, the management of GuySuCo sent a complaint letter to Minister Holder, about the SPU, which is tasked with the divestment of assets of GuySuCo as part of the downsizing of the sugar sector. The letter listed 13 areas for attention, which included but are not limited to: the need for clear policy positions on the roles and responsibilities of the SPU and GuySuCo; a clear business model and strategy for GuySuCo and the SPU as a partnership; and refocusing of SPU on creating greater value from GuySuCo’s assets which have been vested.
In that letter, concerns were also raised about the competency of current SPU executives, which according to GuySuCo, seem to lack the requisite expertise to support the sensitive reconstruction process of GuySuCo. It was also noted in that missive that SPU executives may have ulterior motives which are not in alignment with ensuring the successful transitioning of GuySuCo.
Based on this recent public disagreement, Jagdeo has concluded that Government continued to fail to get things right in the sector. “This is a company that employs the most Guyanese in our country…it has the greatest links to our people, our villages, to drainage and irrigation, to foreign exchange earnings…this is a major sector and Government still can’t get things right … it’s like they wake up and make decisions based on what side of the bed they slept on that night,” he said.
The People’s Progressive Party (PPP) General Secretary also made reference to a recent letter sent to the President by the Geneva-based International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF). In that letter to President David Granger, the IUF expressed concern about the state of affairs in the sugar sector.
“The IUF said exactly what we are saying…do the studies, then act…do the feasibility, social impact and diversification studies and then proceed with any decision…now we are going to borrow $30 billion when they could not find $5 billion a year to keep the whole company open, and we’re not even sure if it is a bond or loan. we don’t know what they will spend it on,” Jagdeo posited.
The IUF said also that too many Guyanese men, women, and children have found themselves facing tough and difficult times. For the IUF, hearing first hand from the workers their stories of survival and struggle as they live day in and day out was heart-rending and very moving.
Government’s handling of the sugar industry since it assumed office in 2015 has received a heap of criticisms not only from the workers themselves but local economists and international experts.
In November of 2017, GuySuCo first announced plans to dismiss thousands of workers, which it did. The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers’ Union (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.