Severance pay: Despite GAWU’s court case, Govt will pay when “it promised”- Harmon

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State Minister, Joseph Harmon during his post Cabinet press briefing on Thursday hinted that Government will be making the second tranche of severance payments to 4283 retrenched sugar workers at the end of 2018, when it said it would.

State Minister, Joseph Harmon

According to Harmon during a Post Cabinet press briefing on Thursday, “Cabinet discussed payment of the second tranche of severance to sugar workers and iterated its commitment to honouring the agreement to make the remaining severance payment within the time it promised.”

This is despite the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) filing legal proceedings against the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) and the National Industrial and Commercial Investments Limited (NICIL), to which GuySuCo has transferred all of its assets.

GAWU, which is the legitimate trade union for the sugar workers, is seeking “all severance or redundancy payments or allowances due, owing and payable under the provisions of the Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Act, Chapter 96:01” to the 4283 employees attached to the Skeldon, Rose Hall and the East Demerara Sugar Estates that were made redundant in 2017.

In January of this year Government had announced that redundant sugar estate workers whose severance payments are $500,000 and less will be paid in full by the end of January 2018, while workers receiving in excess of the aforementioned sum would attain 50 per cent of their severance benefits by the end of January and the other 50 per cent at the end of 2018.

GAWU in its proceedings is contending that it is illegal for Government to pay the severance in two tranches as this is against the letter and spirit of what is outlined by Section 21 of the Termination of Employment and Severance Pay (TESPA) Act.

In the legal documents, it was outlined that the redundant workers were to receive their redundancy allowance/severance payment no later than December 29, 2017.

The legal team, which is led by Attorney Anil Nandlall, stated that the over 4000 workers were paid only a portion of their severance payments.

The lawyers highlighted that even while this was ongoing, GuySuCo transferred all of its assets for those three estates under the Finance Minister to NICIL as per notice published in the Official Gazette (Extraordinary) of Guyana on December 30, 2017.

Lawyers also observed that GuySuCo has been collateralised as security for a $30 billion loan that it has or is borrowing from commercial banks.

The attorneys are seeking an order from the court to direct the respondents –GuySuCo and NICIL, their officers, servants and agents – to “pay forthwith to the said 4280 employees of GuySuCo – and members of the Applicant, all severance or redundancy payments or allowances due, owing and payable under the provisions of TESPA.”

The matter comes up for hearing on July 20, 2018, at 13:45h, before Justice Fidella Corbin-Lincoln, at the High Court.

Opposition Leader, Dr Bharrat Jagdeo

The Opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and GAWU had decried that Government’s move to pay in two tranches was illegal, with the PPP’s leader Dr Bharrat Jagdeo signalling in February of this year that they would help retrenched sugar workers to mount a legal challenge against government over their severance payments.

Touching on the court challenge, Jagdeo during a press conference held today (Thursday) said that he thinks it is a “wise move on the part of the Union. We support that. In fact, we were willing to go jointly…There is no timeline that the Government has given so if the court case forces them to give a timeline and then they say ‘but we can’t pay because there is a court case’, GAWU can easily withdraw the court case and have the workers paid but right now, they’re raising all of this money, there is confusion at the Board but the workers can’t get their severance. So I’m supporting.”

Since the closure of the estates the Government has been heavily criticised for not having a clear direction to steer the terminated workers. In fact, many observers had called for the Administration to conduct social impact studies before such decisions are taken.

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