Once again, the GAWU cannot allow the patent falsehoods of Vice President and Minister of Public Security and AFC Chairman, Khemraj Ramjattan to be left unanswered lest his remarks related to sugar be considered truthful. The Public Security Minister, a known lighting-rod of controversy, appearing on an online programme titled “Is there a constitutional crisis looming?” that was broadcasted on the internet on February 23, 2019, made, from our point-of-view, a number of incorrect statements regarding the sugar industry.
The Minister, on the matter, said that the Administration had spent G$36 billion during the first three years of its life. But what the Minister didn’t tell the audience was that the sum represented 3.7 per cent of aggregate expenditure. He also didn’t say that those monies supported the lives of nearly 70,000 Guyanese or 9.3 per cent of the population or that some of those monies were used for consumption and, therefore, helped to support the lives of thousands more Guyanese. Undoubtedly, the Minister was disingenuous in what he was saying and clearly was speaking from one side of his mouth.
The Vice President went on to say Government’s support of sugar was dragging the economy down. Well, now the support has stopped and what we have is the significant curtailment of consumption of thousands of Guyanese who were linked to the now-closed Skeldon, Rose Hall, East Demerara and Wales Estates. In fact, the workers are experiencing such hard times, they have resorted to catching fish and picking wildly grown vegetables in the backlands to feed their families.
The NIS has also lost thousands of contributors which must be taking a toll on the Scheme. The GRA also has lost many, many millions in income and value-added taxes associated with the workers. And the economy has lost several million US dollars in export earnings. In fact, for us, it was not unsurprising to read about the increased costs for foreign currency and to learn about shortages in the country as well. So we ask, isn’t the vacuum created by the closure of the estates dragging not only the economy but communities down too?
Then Minister Ramjattan boldly said that about 4000 workers lost their jobs. This, again, is completely a figment of the Minister’s imagination. Contrary to the Minister’s bold assertion, it was approximately 7000 workers who lost their jobs. First, 1700 were pushed onto the breadline when Wales Estate was closed at the end of 2016. Then nearly 5000 were sent home when the Skeldon, Rose Hall and East Demerara Estates closed at the end of 2017. The Minister’s sordid attempt to downplay the reality cannot stand scrutiny whatsoever.
Regarding the payment of severance to the thousands of displaced workers, the Minister said that the Government hadn’t enough monies to offset the payments. This excuse has been used so many times that its repetition is now laughable. The fact remains that the Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Act required that the workers be paid their monies in full.
The Government was well aware of this, yet it persisted to act contrary to the law. Eventually, as the public well knows, the matter was addressed by the High Court which found the Government in breach and awarded the workers interests on their outstanding payments. The argument about having insufficient monies, in our view, is irrelevant, as the Government was well aware that thousands of workers had to be paid their severance payments since it decided, in the first place, to make them jobless. GuySuCo even informed the GAWU in the latter part of 2017 that it shared with the Administration an estimated cost for those payments. To then turn around and argue that monies were not available could only be seen as a futile attempt to pull the wool over the Guyanese peoples’ eyes. The fact is, when one considers the extravagance that permeates the Government nowadays, monies could have been found but it is our view that the withholding was yet another means of punishment.
The Minister told the programme that Barbados had taken its sugar lands and converted them to golf courses, seemingly to insinuate that the island had ceased sugar production. Though the island-State may have put some sugar lands into alternative use, it didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater as the country still maintains its sugar industry.
The Minister, in making the Barbados inference, pointed to the need for diversification. But we ask, what the Government has done in this regard? We should not forget that G$30 billion has been borrowed towards diversifying the currently operable estates but that sum has largely remained locked away. Moreover, the GAWU strongly advocates that the industry’s sustainability was rooted in its diversification and the Union in its presentation on February 17, 2017, to the Government, which incidentally, was led by Minister Ramjattan, outlined how the diversification trust should be pursued.
The Minister also accepted that the decisions on sugar had a socioeconomic impact. But when the necessity of a socioeconomic impact assessment was brought to his attention during a meeting with the trade unions and the Opposition – PPP/C – on February 03, 2017, he unambiguously told those present that the Government would not pursue such a study but the trade unions and Opposition could do so if they so desire.
To now turn around and admit there was an impact but failing beforehand to ascertain what that impact would be, gives rise to the view of whether the Government really had the people in mind and in heart before it took the decisions it ultimately did.
Today, while the Minister seeks to offer a defence to the situation and conduct which clearly is indefensible, the GAWU see its worthwhile to recall what Finance Minister Winston Jordan said about the sugar industry in his 2015 budget address “[t]he economic well-being of the sugar industry is critical to the protection of jobs and growth of the economy as well as the contribution it makes to GDP, exports and foreign exchange”.
We wonder what happened to such sentiments when the Administration resorted to its approach to the industry especially recognising that its own sugar Commission of Inquiry told it that closure was not an option that should be considered. So, today, while Minister Ramjattan seeks to obviously justify the Administration’s approach, the reality is thousands of Guyanese men, women and children are the hapless victims, living in miserable circumstances and difficult times. Even more disconcerting is that the State, rather than lending a helpful hand, has instead turned its back on them.