GAWU bemoans “underwhelming performance” in sugar industry for 2022

The content originally appeared on: INews Guyana
GAWU Head Seepaul Narine

See full statement from the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU):

The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) saw 2022 as a year that was unique from several perspectives. Indeed, as in years before, the Union confronted several challenges as it stood in defence of its members and the working-class generally. Though daunting, at times, the Union persevered and through its efforts secured new gains as it won several battles on behalf of members. We are heartened by those victories as it is demonstrable that the workers, when united, can succeed in winning their genuine demands.

As we will soon enter a new year, such lessons remain an inspiration for us to continue to advance our efforts and to ensure greater protection of workers. As the year reaches its conclusion, we remain concerned too that several challenges still lurk and will remain with us in the new year. Though disheartened we are convinced that like previous episodes the workers will again win out.

As we reflect on 2022, we take this opportunity to address a few specific issues germane to the Union and its members which we believe require our comment.

The sugar industry – an underwhelming performance

The GAWU remains particularly disappointed and disturbed by the performance of the sugar industry in 2022. This year the industry, according to the most recent information, produced 47,011 tonnes sugar as follows:-

Estate

Target

Actual

Variance

Albion

30,961

25,834

5,127

Blairmont

20,262

15,097

5,165

Uitvlugt

13,666

6,080

7,586

Total

64,889

47,011

17,878

We were told that the initial annual production estimate (64,889 tonnes sugar) was arrived at after a thorough and vigorous examination of the canes in the fields. Lamentably, that target was not attained. Expectedly, the Corporation has justified its performance on account of the weather and workers.

The sugar company said that the 2021 floods, which particularly affected Albion Estate, was one of the causes of its low output. In as much as that justification may seem acceptable, the industry said it assessed all its canes prior to the commencement of production. It goes to reason that the canes which sustained damages during the floods were also assessed.

As has become the norm, the GuySuCo sought to blame the workers for its production woes as well. Though, for the GAWU, a worn out excuse, the sugar company, at several times, during the year praised its workers efforts in enabling the realization of sugar targets. How can the workers be bad on one occasion and good in another. It speaks of the state of confusion that the Corporation currently finds itself. While workers are scapegoated, the industry harvested nearly all its canes, except for a small amount at Albion after the rains brought the crop to an end.

The GAWU, as expressed before, remains concern about the management of the industry. We are aware that over time the industry has lost critical skills arising from attrition and retirement. The Union understands that the exodus has hastened in recent times arising from differences of opinions among personalities. If our reports are indeed correct, this is an unhealthy development and does not help the industry in any form. We share the view expressed by Vice President Dr Bharrat Jagdeo that there is a need to strengthen the industry’s management cadre to replace lost skills and to bring new ways of thinking in addressing present day challenges.

The role of the sugar workers also cannot be overemphasized in the success of the industry. The Union and the workers remain appreciative of the efforts of President Dr Irfaan Ali and his Government in supporting the industry. We believe the investments, once properly and adequately utilized, can make a meaningful difference. The GAWU also urges similar focus on the industry’s workers who suffered the indignation of a wage freeze between 2015 and 2020 under the Coalition Government. This massive setback and stagnation of pay rates placed the workers at a disadvantage. To illustrate the starkness of the situation with the recent eight (8) percent pay rise,  a sugar workers is paid $1,285 to cut 2,200 pounds of canes and fetch those canes in 100 pounds bundles on their heads to the punts some distance away. While efforts are being furthered to assist through mechanization, there is need to also invest in the workers.

It is apt at this juncture to point out that the industry has recruited contractors to undertake tasks at rates higher than it pays its own employees. We recall in August, this year the Stabroek News reported on a report regarding mechanical tillage works at Rose Hall. In a letter by the former Estate Manager, the public learnt that the Corporation increased its rates payable for this task by over 40% in less than a year. We have heard too that the company is about to embark on similar works at other estates paying rates that are above the prevailing GuySuCo rates inclusive of all overheads. The GAWU understands that the company was motivated to approve higher payments partially on account of the need for contractors to earn profits. By that yardstick, at the current rates of pay, it would indicate that the workers are not earning profits for their labour. It is our sincere view that the industry should practice what it preaches and offer similar rates of pay to its employees.

We are also concerned at this time about the purchase of certain implements and equipment by the sugar company. Union members have drawn to our attention, in recent times, the acquisition of unsuitable machinery and equipment. In one recent instance, GAWU has learnt that cane loading machines delivered had to be returned to the supplier after it was deemed unsuitable. While it is said the company did not pay over any monies to the supplier, the lost opportunity of not having the machines would impede the industry’s progress. In other instances, we have learnt that certain implements and equipment have been purchased only to lie idle at estates. These are serious worries which, in our view, require further examination.

The GAWU contends that the sugar industry have possibilities of success. The company has drawn to our attention its efforts in advancing its packaged sugar sales and its securing of new markets. This is encouraging though its low production maybe be a limiting factor. Undoubtedly there is an urgent need to improve production and productivity at all the estates. This has several possible positive spill offs. In this regard, we have come to understand that the industry hopes to produce 100,000 tonnes sugar by 2025. We believe such targets are not only attainable but can be surpassed. We, however, contend that important to such feats are a committed workforce and a capable management.

Other workplaces – successes and challenges

Outside of the sugar industry, the GAWU represents a sizeable number of workers in a number of enterprises across several economic sectors. During the year, our continued engagements with these employers have yielded success while we did confront some challenges. We are heartened that as 2022 ends, we have secured gains for employees through collective bargaining at many of these workplaces. Not only have those workers benefitted from improvement in wages/salaries but through negotiations we have enhanced allowances and secured improvement in other conditions of works.

We are mindful too that some employers have sought to resist the will of the workers to become organized. It is disappointing that in our contemporary times that some employers would seek to challenge workers inalienable freedom of association. We are disappointed by such actions as they violate an incontrovertible constitutional right backed by international recognition. Such resistance we locate in the unsparing efforts of employers to continue to perpetuate oppressive and exploitative conditions on workers. This is disheartening that in this day and time that workers must endure such difficulties especially when we read and hear of the steady advancement of those businesses.

Though we are disappointed we believe our efforts have also served to awaken the workers who, in some instances, were not aware that their rights were violated. During 2022 we have engaged the Ministry of Labour and the Trade Union Recognition and Certification Board on several of these matters and we are satisfied by the responses. We will in 2023 continue in our efforts to bring justice to these workers and ensure that their rights are respected and treated with dignity.

The oil and gas sector – a work in progress

During 2022, the Union’s efforts among workers in the nascent oil and gas sector continued. At this time, we are engaging workers from several enterprises who have approached our Union for guidance and support. For the GAWU the situation that confront workers in this sector is a vivid reminder that all that glitters is not gold. In many instances, workers have shared with us they were encouraged by the high rates-of-pay offered. They shared they had quickly learnt that many matters which they believe were clearly settled are not being practiced by some employers. We have learnt that in some instances workers are not paid overtime. Workers have said their firms have told them that this is built into their salaries as their payments are usually expressed in daily rather than hourly terms. When workers hourly rates have been computed it tells a much different story.

Additionally, workers have shared with us the attitude of some foreigners towards them. They indicated that they feel ashamed and upset by the treatment they must endure. Workers also expressed concerns about the absence of any concern by their employers during the period they are off duty. One group of employees shared with the GAWU that their medical insurance ceases to be in effect during off-duty periods. The labyrinth of employment relations characterized by agency and contract employment adds to the precariousness of work in the sector. Indeed, in some instances, there are very hazy lines that are intended to obscure and conflate. These are not healthy developments for our nation’s workers especially in such a risky environment.

While the GAWU, from its own experiences, was aware of the daunting situation our enhanced relations with the Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU) of Trinidad and Tobago has brought us greater clarity. Indeed, when a comparison is made of the conditions it is almost chalk to cheese. Our own computations have determined that Guyanese workers are paid one-tenth of their counterparts in the twin island republic. We have heard explanations of Guyanese inexperience as a rationale for pay rates but we are aware too that many of our countrymen and women have been able to obtain certifications similar to their counterparts from other countries. It appears to us that the rationale holds little water.

We remain convinced that they are violations in certain instances of workers rights. Earlier this year, we had drawn these instances to the attention of ExxonMobil which has written our Union to outline that it remains committed to the ILO’s Fundamental Freedoms and this is also enshrined in contracts with its vendors. We are heartened by the response of ExxonMobil but we do not believe in every instance this is translated to contractors and sub-contractors. The GAWU in 2023 will continue to play its role in assisting, guiding and educating workers in this sector of their rights and assist them in addressing challenges they maybe encountering.

The unorganized sector – a challenging environment

During 2022, our Union continued to be approach by workers from several unorganized workplaces. As we listened to their cries, we became despondent as they described the exploitative and onerous conditions they confront. In several instances, basic rights are violated and dignity and justice at work remains a mirage. Our Union is deeply bothered by the harsh treatment of such workers who, given their economic situation, are forced to swallow the bitter pill.

We have, in several instances, been able to assist workers who have engaged us for assistance and guidance. The GAWU has also drawn the Ministry of Labour attention to several issues and sought their intervention to bring justice to the workers. We are happy that this has resulted in some victories. Our Union is mindful too that sometimes firms rather than addressing workers rights have chosen to engage human resource and legal advocates who seek to perpetuate the wrongdoing. This is not a healthy development and may signal the need for strengthening of our laws and regulations to ensure that justice and rights are not denied to our workers.

The cost-of-living -a difficult time for workers

In 2022, the heightening cost-of-living is an issue that attracted the attention of many workers. The Bureau of Statistics recorded that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) increased by 6.5% for the year up to October, 2022. Notably, the food CPI was nearly double at 12.3% over the same period. Some may express doubt over the figures given the situation in the markets, supermarkets, and shops. It is acknowledged, however, that prices grew greater than the usual during this year. We are mindful that to a large extent the price increases have their origins in occurrences taking place far beyond our borders and of which we are an unwitting victim.

We recognize too the efforts of the Government to mitigate the price rises through several initiatives. Indeed these are welcomed and we believe without the proactive approach of the Administration the bad situation could have indeed been worse. While pleased by such developments, we recognize too that, it appears, savings realized through Government initiatives were not being passed on to the consumer. It is unfortunate that there maybe some who rather than seeking to share the relief offered by public policies were seeking to profiteer. We are disappointed by such behaviour as it represents yet another form of exploitation perpetuated against our people, especially the workers. We abhor those who engage in such practices and we believe that a re-evaluation of policies maybe necessary to seek to provide greater support to the people directly.

Improving our workers well-being

During 2022, we recognize the Government’s thrust to improve the well-being of its workers. This is a laudable step given the difficulties many of those workers faced. We are pleased too that come January, next year several categories of workers will benefit from further improvements. Indeed, there was an undoubted need for improvement and it is to the credit of the Administration that recognised the need for interventions. We are told too that further improvements are being formulated. This gives us hope that our people can have higher expectations of improved public services. We note too that efforts are being further to bring additional improvements through reduction in energy costs, better quality and greater infrastructure, enhanced health care, among other things. In totality they would redound to augmenting the quality of life enjoyed by our workers.

While pleased at the efforts of the Government, we use this opportunity to express a call for our non-state sector to follow suit. Certainly, we believe it is in their interest given the need to secure knowledgeable and capable workers.

Economic advancement – development for all

In 2022, our economy again is expected to lead global economic growth. It is an unenviable position to find ourselves and one which puts the global spotlight on our developing country. From reports we saw, it is anticipated that significant economic growth will be with us for the next several years. This is welcomed news especially give our past struggles as a nation. The GAWU is heartened by such developments as it portends that greater improvement and advancement are in the pipeline for our people who are undoubtedly deserving.

We must express too our views that development are equitable and that all our boats rise together. Indeed such measure of development would earn our respect and we believe it is justifiable. At this time, we recognize concerns are being harboured about inequity. These have yet to be clearly proven but it should provide added impetus to ensure that our people altogether benefit from our prosperity. For the GAWU, development cannot be chracterised by fanciful things but by the ability of our people to live adequate lives where they can attain their aspirations and build a strong foundation for the future.

Conclusion

During 2022, the GAWU is proud of its efforts and work. We have scored several victories and overcome many challenges. In as much we are reminded that the year was not all smooth sailing as we experienced some level of difficulty. Though it was challenging at times, we believe it has made us stronger and enhanced our capacity to defend our members. Importantly, the year has demonstrated once again the resilience of mankind. It has shown that in the face of adversity we can overcome and emerge stronger. It causes us to be imbued to go forward stronger, committed and optimistic that though intrigues will always be formed against us we will overcome and roundly defeat them.

The year demonstrated the correctness of our positions and showed that despite adversity and difficulty we can succeed to realizing our reasonable objectives. As past generations of workers have shown us we can overcome challenges and win out if our demands and struggles are just. This is their abiding lesson to us. This enduring message we should not forget. The working people must be always vigilant, militant, organizationally strong and united, and must always raise the banner of solidarity.

As we now enter a new year, we are hopeful that the trials and tribulations we faced can be erased. We are hopeful that injustices perpetuated can be righted. And, we are hopeful that a better tomorrow will dawn.

Finally, at this time, we take this opportunity to extend best wishes for the New Year. May 2023 bring you all joy, happiness, and prosperity.