LETTER: Sugar plans will push thousands of ordinary people into impoverishment

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The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) refers to a letter from Mr Gobin Harbhajan entitled “GAWU already betrayed membership” which appeared in the September 03, 2017 edition of the Guyana Chronicle. While the author has stressed the need to be objective and factual, it is obvious that his letter does not live up to his lofty claim.

 Mr Harbhajan accused our Union of defending the previous administration. It would seem that our citing of relevant and accurate statistics and figures have irked the Regional Councillor, though he posits that he seeks an objective conversation premised on facts and figures. He obviously cannot have his cake and eat it too. The letter writer goes on to say that our Union implied that the Coalition Government “erred in fulfilling its economic and social responsibility”.

Our Union strongly upholds this view. We steadfastly believe that the APNU/AFC Administration has not and is not living up to its responsibilities to the thousands who depend, in one way or another, on the sugar industry. Certainly, such a view is not unfounded when no less than a Vice President, though being advised of the need for a socio-economic study of the Government sugar plans, told the Unions in the industry and the Opposition party that the Government would not pursue such an important study.

Even more disturbing was the VP telling the Unions and the Opposition party that they should pursue such a study, which really means that the government is divesting itself from a core responsibility. Undoubtedly, then our view is not without merit. The fact is that such studies are an indispensible tool for policymakers to properly assess decisions of the magnitude the Government is seeking to implement for the sugar industry. For Mr Harbhajan’s information even the European Union (EU) conducted such a study in Guyana in assessing the impact of the sugar price cut.

 Mr Harbhajan then laughably criticizes our Union for not providing solutions to the sugar industry. It seems that the erstwhile gentleman has, obviously, not been following the related news. Our Union has, on several occasions, shared our views and suggestions with the public, and the government, on safeguarding and securing the sugar industry. Our suggestions, Mr Harbhajan, involve a vertically integrated industry producing several products including electricity, refined sugar, alcohol, among other things. These are not by any means new ideas and are backed up by several studies which have confirmed their feasibility. In fact, the current GuySuCo CEO, in a previous incarnation in the post in 2009, had included several of those ideas in his “Blueprint for Success” at that time.

 The author then criticizes our Union for agitating on behalf of the workers we represent. It seems that he is saying that sugar workers are not deserving of life similar to those enjoyed by himself and his colleagues and they and their families needed to be kept at ‘basement levels’. We also find the view echoed by Mr Harbhajan a U-turn from the view he and his colleagues held prior to the May, 2015 elections. In those times, we heard that the workers were underpaid and they and their families were told about a 20 per cent pay rise. Like many other commitments, those utterances were obviously insincere and meant to dupe and deceive.

 Mr Harbhajan pontificates that he accepts that no estate should be closed but privatized in keeping with the Sugar Commission of Inquiry (CoI). The author then makes a passing reference to Wales saying the calamities which beset the area would have been avoided had such an approach been taken. But it was the Government of which Mr Harbhajan is a part of that refused an offer from the private cane farmers to take over the lands and factory at Wales. Instead, the people of Wales and all Guyanese were told that diversification into non-sugar crops was to be their savior. It is saddening to record that just a small area has seed paddy cultivation in the given circumstance where deprivation and desperation is growing exponentially in the communities linked to Wales Estate. Similarly, Enmore and Rose Hall are identified for heading down the same misery-filled road of closure. It seems to us that Mr Harbhajan is blowing a lot of hot air.

 We share and accept Mr Harbhajan’s view that sugar can be profitable. Equally, we hold that if private owners can make it profitable, GuySuCo can achieve similar feats. While the author speaks to the Government’s support to the industry he seems to forget the billions of dollars the industry channeled directly to the Treasury; the indirect employment it fosters; the infrastructural support it has provided; its drainage and irrigation services which prevents many communities from being inundated; its training of and diffusion of skills throughout the country, among the great lot of things it does for the Guyanese people.

 The worn out red-herring GuySuCo debt figure is also called to attention by Mr Harbhajan. On this matter we urge him to look at the disaggregated figures. There he would find that the devil is really in the details. The proportion of labour costs to overall costs is also mentioned by Mr Harbhajan. But it seems the author fails to recognize or appreciate that the industry is still largely labour intensive. Interestingly according to GuySuCo, during its presentation to the Economic Services Committee earlier this year, 6 per cent of costs are attributed to the Senior Staffers – a small cohort of the thousands employed by the industry. Furthermore, with 70 per cent of costs in the industry being fixed, lower production will result in higher average costs as an elementary economics student would explain. Certainly, a higher production level would lend lower proportion cost.

 We are also asked by the author to share what areas we have in commonality with the Sugar CoI. On this matter, we ask Mr Harbhajan to seek a copy of our proposals presented to the Government on February 17 this year from his high-placed, jet setting colleagues. There he would see where we are supportive of the recommendations of the Sugar CoI and where we aren’t. Such an explanation would take much of the limited space in this response. We also should stress to Mr Harbhajan that our proposals have not been deemed outlandish or undoable by the ‘experts’ in GuySuCo and the Government. In fact aside from a singular sentence in the ‘State Paper’ advising that GAWU submit a proposal to the Administration nothing has been said about the Union’s ideas which are supported by empirical studies.

 While Mr Harbhajan accuses the Union of betraying its members, that is a moniker best suited to the letter writer and his colleagues who seem bent on pushing thousands and thousands of ordinary people into impoverishment and into a life of shattered dreams and hopes.

 Yours faithfully,

 Seepaul Narine, General Secretary

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