Letter: GAWU urges Govt Information Director to be better acquainted with sugar industry

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Dear Editor,

The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) wishes to refer to an article appearing in the April 26, 2017 Guyana Chronicle titled “Sugar, votes and cyclical poverty”    that was authored by the Director of Public Information, Mr Imran Khan.

In his article, the Director called attention to a statement by our Union’s President, Mr Komal Chand in response to the then planned European Union (EU) sugar price cut. The GAWU President quite correctly pointed to the obvious dangers that would come to bear should the EU proceed with its then plan. It was generally acknowledged that by all those who knew about sugar that the EU cut or ‘reform’, as it was styled, would present difficulties for the industry. This, as far as we know, was never shied away from or hidden.

Mr Khan also goes on to seemingly put words in the GAWU’s President mouth saying that Mr Chand was aware that the EU changes would make the industry unsustainable. Neither our Union nor Mr Chand ever made such utterances. We find Mr Khan’s assertions baseless and without substance. The industry recognized challenges that would emerge and crafted a plan to address the fallout. Mr Khan may also be interested to learn that the industry’s measures were, not so surprisingly, fully supported by persons who currently hold high-level posts in the said industry. Now, those same individuals tell us those ideas no longer hold water. We find their somersaulting interesting.  Is it a case of he who pays the piper calls the tune? 

We also wish to advise Mr Khan that Diamond Estate was closed in 1985 and the LBI factory in 2011. However, it was not until latter half of 2016 that LBI Estate was closed when certain operations were merged with their counterparts at Enmore. Until then the Union was made to understand by GuySuCo officials that the LBI Estate would not be closed. That ‘consolidation’, we understand, was intended to reduce costs and improve efficiencies. Yet, a few weeks after, our Union and the workers learnt on the last day of 2016 that the Administration was contemplating closing the same estate – Enmore Estate – and putting about 2,300 workers out of work.

Our Union shares the Director’s view that “Sugar workers’ lives are no story of prosperity and glamour as some would make it out to be”. Indeed, the workers perform one of the most difficult jobs in the labour market. Yet, in face of the difficult circumstances which sugar workers face, their rates-of-pay were last improved in 2014; they were denied Annual Production Incentive (API) in 2016 for the first time in over 60 years, and other long-standing conditions, rights and practices are openly disrespected by the state-owned sugar company. It is no wonder that the workers have to “ketch their hand”. 

We are disheartened to read Mr Khan saying that large number of workers live in an impoverished state. Indeed this is inaccurate and possibly speaks to Mr Khan’s disconnect from reality. Many sugar workers, through their incomes which were adjusted over time, have been able to live modest, humble lives. Some accomplished feats once thought were impossible such as sending their children to university. We find the Director’s assertion offensive to the hard-working workers.  Or, maybe it is a case of Mr Khan having a crystal ball which advised him that workers would “…live in perpetual, punishing, cyclical poverty” should the Administration implement its dastardly plans for the industry.

Mr Khan’s lack of knowledge is further exposed when he says “there was little effort to diversify…”. There were moves in this direction as evidenced by the Skeldon Co-generation Plant and the Enmore and Blairmont Packaging plants. Our Union was advised that in 2016, that the operators of the Skeldon Co-Generation plant collected no less than $9.45B from sales. In fact, the Sugar Commission of Inquiry (CoI), for the Director’s information, advised that electricity production has great potential as a revenue earner for GuySuCo. Moreover, packaged sugar, the CoI said, offers the sugar corporation their highest prices.

Also, the Director of Public Information may be interested to know that just a few weeks ago a Conference to discuss the Jamaican industry concluded that ventures into electricity production, refined white sugar, among other things offered that industry good possibilities for viability. If Jamaica can do it, what stops Guyana which has flat arable land, an adequate fresh water supply, inexpensive cane transportation, know-how, sufficient labour, factory capacity, etc from doing the same or even better?

The erstwhile gentleman also points to the level of Government support since the Coalition assumed the reins of power. We wonder: doesn’t he find it odd given the large sum provided to GuySuCo that sugar production this year is estimated at around 198,000 tonnes? In view of the investment, production ought to have been much higher than the 231,000 tonnes production inherited in 2015. Mr Khan may want to ask whether we have the right captain at the helm of GuySuCo. On the debt, we urge the Director to seek a disaggregation of the data as it would be most enlightening for him.

Mr Khan then goes on to say that “…diversification must be pursued in earnest”. But Wales which was closed and hundreds pushed into an uncertain life was to be the launching pad for that diversification that the Director waxes lyrically but which has, seemingly, suffered a stillbirth. As far as we are aware nothing is being done in this direction. All we hear about are plans, studies and examinations which from the documentation we have seen have more holes than Swiss cheese.

Mr Director, do get better acquainted and acquire a better understanding of the industry you want to write about.

Yours faithfully,

Seepaul Narine
General Secretary

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