Letter: Govt ‘State Paper’ on Sugar will haunt Guyanese for a long time


Dear Editor,

The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) has examined the Government’s State Paper on the Future of the Sugar Industry in Guyana which was presented to the National Assembly yesterday (May 08, 2017). The paper, unsurprisingly, largely confirms what has been widely said by Administration spokespersons in recent time. The GAWU is disheartened that the “hard decisions” as Minister of Natural Resources, Raphael Trotman described it on Labour Day will serve to wreck the lives of thousands of ordinary, decent, hard-working Guyanese and reduce vibrant and robust rural economies to a shell of their current selves.

The paper does very little to quell our strong and significant concerns about the plans for sugar which we have registered with the Government and have shared publicly as well. We see the paper as largely a repetition of what we have previously heard from officials of the Government and the Guyana Sugar Corporation Inc (GuySuCo) much of which we had reasons to disagree with. It seems that the Administration’s ploy is to repeat their glaringly incorrect and wrong conclusions often enough for it to be accepted as the truth. This is indeed unfortunate as the thousands of sugar workers and the wider Guyanese nation are wiser than the Government seems to think and believe.

The Government in seeking to justify their sad plans has called to attention the reduction of the number of sugar estates over time. But this is just half of the picture. While factories and estates were consolidated throughout the years, sugar production rose and cost of production declined as a result of economies of scale among other efficiency improvements. This time around, however, the Executive is promoting policies which will contract production while the effects on cost are not yet clear.

The paper goes on to state that the Government “…is expected to demonstrate prudent management of public resources under its control”. This is a statement we wholly endorse and thus we are perplexed that while the Administration is sometimes saying the right things it continues to take imprudent decisions. We see the plans for sugar exacerbating the already trying social situation in our country. The problems that will be spawned from the ideas contained in the sugar paper will require large sums from the Treasury to address and remedy and seems to be most imprudent.

We also recognize the obvious, glaring anomaly when it is said that GuySuCo’s production up to 1992, averaged as much as 328,000 tonnes sugar per annum. This is simply not true. As our historians/researchers would recall GuySuCo came into being in 1976 and our records indicate that between 1976 and 1992 average production was 245,075 tonnes sugar. The paper then goes on to point out the industry’s real challenge, a 14 per cent decline in land productivity and a 10 per cent decline in factory productivity. Given the significance of the issue, no explanation of any sort was provided. Sugar and GuySuCo in the past have faced similar, if not worst, conditions and have surmounted them. For a nation producing sugar for such a long period, it is disheartening that we cannot come to grips with the challenges in the industry. It seems to us that there is more a lack of a will than a way.

Unsurprisingly and not unexpectedly, sugar’s contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has fallen. Aside from a reduced production, we cannot fail to point out that in 2006 new sectors were included in our GDP computation. Quite obviously the same pie with more slices will lend to some sort of reduction. We also hasten to point out that of all the sectors compared in the paper, only sugar, rice and other agriculture are sustainable industries. The contributions of the others will decline as the resources become exhausted.

Attention is also paid to the number of employees in the industry. Here again, we see some deception emerging. We are told that about 28,000 persons were employed in 1992; this was simply not the case. But like the paper says at this time “GuySuCo is the country’s single largest employer…” this is a fact that should not be lost in the debates and discussions that will ensue. We wonder given an environment of reducing job opportunities and increasing unemployment how ‘prudent’ are the thoughts contained in the paper presented.

We are also told that there has been a sharp decline in the industry’s workforce between 2006 and 2015. What is not said, however, is that the industry’s mechanization programme was intended to address the very issue. Significant sums have already been invested by GuySuCo to convert its fields for mechanical operations. Moreover, we must remind that GuySuCo told the Parliamentary Economic Services Committee in 2014 that mechanization would reduce costs by 20 per cent per annum and would cost $14B, an investment that would be repaid in two and a half years. It is dismaying given the positive spinoffs to be had that mechanization in sugar is not even considered as is evidenced by the rejection of CDB funds for further mechanization.

In addressing labour, concerns are also raised about worker turnout. But, as far as we are aware, no serious examination has been done to determine why this is so. The Corporation should find it strange that in a tightening labour market, the situation remains what it is. GuySuCo and the Government are reminded that the industry experienced similar circumstances in the latter 1980s and which were corrected when rates-of-pay were aligned with cost-of-living. It seems that the Corporation rather than learning from previous experiences is repeating its shortcomings of the past.

Regarding the reference to unstable and adversarial industrial relations climate, there is the often repeated point about strikes. As we have said before, and reiterate once more, the bulk of the strikes that took place were related to disputes surrounding workers’ demands for compensation to undertake tasks in abnormal conditions such as grassy, vine-infested cane fields or in defending their gains which were threatened by some ‘bully bosses’. There is a negative correlation between such disputes and cane yields. Higher yields reduce abnormalities which give rise to those disputes. Thus, the answer to have reduced strikes is fairly simple – have more canes in the fields and also an able management.

We also share the view that the changes in Europe do pose challenges. But here we must again point out that our industry has possibilities to sell sugar to non-traditional European buyers and can have the protection afforded by Geographical Indicators for the terms ‘Demerara Sugar’ and ‘Demerara Molasses’ in that continent. Moreover, compared to our Caribbean counterparts we possess many comparative advantages which enhance our prospects.

Again, we also see the level of Government support being called to attention. We take the figures quoted with a pinch of salt. We hold that with the proper elements – the present workforce, a capable management and supportive shareholder – Government support will be required for a period as the industry moves to turnaround itself which we remain convinced is quite possible and a feat accomplished before.

The talk about closing estates and replacing their operations with non-sugar ventures is ill-considered and, surely, but not the only, major blunder. As Wales’ experience has shown us nothing is being done in this direction but hundreds are left high and dry without a clue of what their tomorrow will bring. We ask again how any Government can bring itself to condemn thousands of its people to such misery and hardship?

It is disheartening for us to register that our 12-page paper which we shared with the Administration in February was not apparently considered. The paper nor the Government has debunked our Union’s suggestions as being incorrect, wrong or unrealistic in any way. We hold strongly that our suggestions offer the industry a good possibility to overcome its challenges and remain a sustainable entity.

It appears to us that the ‘consultations’ the Government organized was simply a ploy to give the impression of consultation as it seeks to deploy its nefarious plans to harm workers and their families and scar the Guyanese nation for generations to come.

At this time, our Union calls on the Administration and the sugar company to undo all steps taken or halt those that are about to be taken in implementing the direction for the industry as outlined in the ‘State Paper’. We also strongly support the call that the affected workers receive their normal work or paid in lieu of work. Furthermore, we urge that the paper be urgently debated in the National Assembly and discussed among the workers and their representative organisations in the industry especially.

Yours sincerely,
The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union


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