Sugar industry shutdown as workers protest for pay increase

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Scores of sugar workers at Albion, Blairmont and Uitvlugt Estates downed tools as they heightened their call for a pay rise.

The workers together with officials from the GAWU and NAACIE – the unions of the sugar workers – also participated in a picketing exercise outside of the Ministry of the Presidency as they called on the Government of Guyana to bring an end to the wage freeze and to approve a pay rise to them.

The workers and the Unions are contending, quite rightly, that the Government ought not to ignore the plight of the workers who are employed by a state-owned enterprise. The workers shared, for the Administration to simply be ignorant of the situation that confront those in the industry is a clearly naked case of discrimination.

The workers have dismissed utterances by several Governmental officials that it is the Board of the GuySuCo which is required to approve a pay increase to them. The workers questioned if this was indeed the case, why was it the Government, and not the Board, that engaged the Unions and other stakeholders on the closure of four (4) estates in recent times. They reminded that it was Mr Granger himself, who admitted, that it was the Government that made the decision to close Wales Estate.

Similarly, it was the Government which made the decision to shutter the other estates and put thousands of their colleagues out of work. They see the recent statements by the Government as just an excuse to shift the blame and a shameless attempt by the Administration to extricate itself. The workers are of the strong view that the Administration has more than a moral obligation to assist them as they reminded that even former President Forbes Burnham, who founded PNC/R, the largest party in the Coalition Government, had not treated them as terrible as his successors are today.

The protesting workers echoed the sentiments of Opposition Leader, Bharrat Jagdeo who recently pointed out that there are monies available to offset a pay rise to sugar workers. They said they were at a complete loss to know why the Government, which had embraced them prior to attaining office, was treating them with such derision.

They wondered how is it that the Government can go about, in good conscience, to trumpet the pay increases they granted to other sectors of the State, while it fully well knows that sugar workers have not been given any pay increase since it took office. They questioned, as they have many times since 2015, aren’t they similarly deserving? Aren’t they and their families also facing a higher cost-of-living? They shared that they do not buy from different shops and vendors. They have to pay the same prices for everything but they are working for lesser pay. They questioned how can this be deemed fair?

The GAWU also saw in a November 10, Demerara Waves report where Minister of Finance, Winston Jordan deemed employees of the GuySuCo as state employees. While our Union has been sharing such expressions, it is the first time, we can recollect, that a Government official has made such an admission. The Minister’s statement is yet another glaring example of the discrimination that the Government has been practicing. It is saddening to see the Government furthering rather than reducing discrimination.

Of course this discriminatory hand is further exemplified when we examine what Minister Jordan said in a November 07, Newsroom report. The Minister is quoted as saying that “…the Government is trying to do is to rapidly bring salaries and other benefits to a level that befits jobs”. While a noble objective, we hasten to ask don’t the sugar workers, like all workers, deserve the same? Or is it the Minister statement can be read that sugar workers jobs do not attract high esteem, in the Administration’s eyes, and thus they don’t require improvements to ensure that their pay and benefits befits their tasks. This is disturbing if it is true.

In recent times, the sugar workers have heightened their call for a pay rise. Workers have participated in vigil and protest activities to bring attention to their plight. Also, thousands of sugar workers subscribed to a petition calling on the President to approve a pay rise.

President Granger undertook to share the petition with the GuySuCo and receiving their advice before communicating to the workers and the Union. Over two (2) months have gone by since the President received the petition; however no response has been forthcoming. Our Union learnt, through a source, that the GuySuCo did provide a response to the President on the petition though we are unclear of what was the nature of the advice proffered.

In the meantime, the GAWU is well aware that the Corporation has seen the necessity of granting workers a pay rise. We are knowledgeable of certain proposals that have been put forward by the Management which stress the urgency to grant a rise in pay to the workers. We also have come to know that those proposals have received the support of some in the GuySuCo Board of Directors. Clearly, a pay rise to sugar workers is no longer optional but it is now an imperative. Moreover, the necessity has gained traction and it appears that the decision is ultimately left up to the powers-that-be. Of course, their inaction, thus far, is a clear indicator as to where they stand on the issue.