No progress without the working-class – GAWU

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

GAWU’s President, Seepaul Narine Labour Day address 2024Comrades, on this momentous occasion of Labour Day, the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) extends warm greetings to all of you. Your spirited participation during the march through several streets of Georgetown is truly commendable and inspiring. Today, you are continuing the legacy of countless generations of workers who have fought tirelessly and recorded remarkable gains over the years. Indeed, we are inheritors of their sacrifice and stand stronger for their contributions.

As we observe Workers’ Day once more, we are reminded of its lofty objectives. Today, we recall our triumphs and successes as we measure our progress. We call attention to our fair and just demands as we struggle for a better tomorrow. Labour Day represents the working class collective will for advancement, dignity, fairness, and social justice. It embodies the fighting spirit of workers, and it provides renewal for our continued struggles.

Today, we remember the struggles of the workers who marched from Haymarket Square in Chicago, USA, in 1886 to demand an eight-hour working day. Despite facing violent opposition from the owner class, the workers remained steadfast in their peaceful struggle. Although many were imprisoned and some were sent to the gallows, the workers’ determination did not waver. Their courage and sacrifice inspired others worldwide to join the fight and led to the establishment of International Workers’ Day on May 1st and the attainment of an eight (8) hour working day. In Guyana, Labour Day observances began under the leadership of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, and it became a National Holiday in 1958 under the Government of then-Premier Dr Cheddi Jagan, replacing the colonial Empire Day. Today, we continue to honour the spirit of those brave workers and celebrate our progress in improving working conditions for all.

Dear comrades, in our times, we may be unfamiliar with the intense struggles surrounding the eight-hour workday. But we see nowadays the global movement to reduce working hours and days without compromising conditions is gaining momentum. This movement is driven by the need for better work-life balance and taking advantage of efficiency and productivity improvements. As a developing nation, Guyana cannot afford to ignore the ongoing debate and must recognise that the world of work is rapidly evolving. We are encouraged to see that reducing working hours has not led to decreased output, and many global players are beginning to embrace this idea. A healthy, happy, and productive working class is essential to our national developmental aspirations, and we must keep up with these international developments.

Fellow comrades, as we reflect on our progress, celebrate our collective victories, and continue to work towards consolidating the working class and promoting progress, let us keep the banner of justice and dignity for the workers and their families high. We have come a long way from the dark times of slavery and indentureship, and we should be proud of the marked advancements we have made. It is important to remember that these gains were won through struggles. Today, we recognise the improvements in workers’ rights and conditions, the efforts to bring greater fairness in the workplace, and the measures to reduce workplace discrimination.

Though mindful of the progress, we cannot overlook the struggles that persist. Many workers face challenges in having their rights recognised and upheld, and some employers uphold unfair and unjust employment practices. Those realities mainly affect the ununionised segment of the labour force. Unlike you, comrades, those workers have no one to turn to, leaving them voiceless and helpless. The GAWU empathises with those comrades and is committed to providing assistance and guidance. We know of the sad realities of workers who are promised a certain pay but receive something else or are not provided with necessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). We also know of instances where NIS contributions are deducted from earnings but never reach the Scheme. Then there is the challenge of workers not being paid overtime, though they work more than eight (8) hours daily, or others sent home after years of valued and dedicated service without a dollar in severance pay. These comrades are the injustices many of our comrades are confronted with.

On this Labour Day, the GAWU and the FITUG stand in solidarity with workers who face such difficulties. We want you to know there is hope for a brighter tomorrow, but it requires you to take the first step. The Union is your insurance, your friend, and your advocate to right the wrongs and correct the unfairness. The GAWU remains a willing ally and welcomes you with open arms. We have already established branches for Oil and Gas, and Hospitality and Fast Food workers.

Comrades, the NIS remains difficult for many workers. We are conscious of the challenges faced and aware of the Government’s interventions to remedy the difficulties. We recognise that some progress has been recorded, and we anticipate that in a speedy manner, the situation could be reversed. Indeed, our workers deserve no less.

On this Labour Day, a major issue remains the claims by Venezuela over the county of Essequibo. We commend the Government of Guyana, particularly President Dr Mohamed Irfaan Ali, for their diligent efforts in protecting our territorial integrity. The unwavering support of all Guyanese and several allied States and organisations is a testament to the efforts in building a strong coalition against the spurious claim. In the same breath, we express strong condemnation over the irresponsible and reckless statements being made locally that have been used as propaganda by the Venezuelan authorities to bolster their claims. Such actions, comrades, undermine the unity and patriotism of our people and cannot be condoned. At this time, we are grateful to the brave men and women who remain vigilant in defending our territory as we recall and pay tribute to our heroic soldiers who lost their lives in defence of our homeland. On this Labour Day, we reiterate: “Essequibo belongs to Guyana”.

With national development reaching unprecedented levels, comrades, we see that our economy will once again record significant growth this year. It is fuelling national expenditures to all-time highs as we development is taking place in every corner and sector of our country as efforts are heightened to improve the standard of living. These are welcomed as our people anticipate greater progress from our patrimony but we urge that judiciousness and effectiveness be our mantra as investments are advanced. Linked to our development thrust are concerns regarding labour availability. In some areas, foreign labour is utilised, but we must be mindful of the negative experiences of other places in the world. We believe we must examine this issue holistically and craft an appropriate strategy to address present and future labour demands.

We acknowledge, too, that as our country evolves, our workers must change too and be exposed to new work ethics and skills to take advantage of emerging opportunities. Important is the issue of remuneration. We note the efforts of the Government to close gaps in certain areas as they have committed to doing more in the future. These are meaningful interventions which are welcomed by those groups of workers. On this issue, the question of a living wage has emerged, and we reiterate our previous call that the national minimum and public sector minimum wages be equated as a first step and earnest tripartite efforts be made further to realise a workable framework.

As night follows day, comrades, in the face of progress, we always see detractors whose intentions are to satisfy their partisan interests. In our midst, several opportunists are seeking to divide and create mischief. This is a serious setback for our people, particularly the working class. Comrades, the trade union movement rests on solidarity and collectiveness, yet we see our union coming under criticism without rhyme or reason. Recently, the GAWU was singled out by the GTU and GTUC officials due to the gains we have made. We are disappointed by their statements but proud of our efforts. We will not be distracted by those who attempt to misguide and mislead. We remain fortified in our efforts to bring greater gains to our members, as we remain steadfast in our accountability and ensure our financial records are audited annually by the Auditor General. Can those who throw stones say the same about themselves? We urge our comrades on the other side not to be begrudging. Our Union was not begrudgeful when the former Government discriminated against sugar workers for five (5) years. Now, we recognise this is greater even-handedness and wonder whether this is the source of their disenchantment.

Comrades, the sugar industry has been criticised heavily. As the major workers’ union, we are disturbed by the sentiments of some so-called trade unionists who, from all appearances, have joined the political bandwagon to denounce the industry and its hard-working workers. But we should not forget those who placed the industry in the difficulty it finds itself. But now, like Rip Van Winkle, they express surprise at the efforts necessary to breathe new life into the industry. Comrades, it appears, they are vexed by the progress the industry has recorded. Massive investments are being made to heighten production and productivity, with particular emphasis on mechanisation. At Rose Hall Estate, certainly much to their dismay, the chimney, once again, has smoke and more than one thousand of the workers they sent home have regained a livelihood. Soon, too, the growing of canes will recommence at Skeldon, and a sugar refinery is being examined at East Demerara Estate. Comrades those who criticise are shameless and have no care for the workers and their families. We should ignore and reject them and ask them about their broken promises of a 20% pay increase and other pies in the sky they fooled Guyanese with during the 2015 elections. Comrades, their true nature as confidence tricksters are exposed.

Comrades, we began by reflecting on the international origins of Labour Day and, on this day, cannot fail to assess the international situation. We are mindful that our ongoing struggles are part of the wider global class struggles that are taking place as the world’s workers seek to break free from the chains of bondage, exploitation and inequity. On this Labour Day, the GAWU extends its full solidarity with the world’s working people. We also send fraternal greetings to all oppressed peoples, particularly farmers, youth, women, and other progressive movements aligned with realising a better tomorrow for our world’s people.

Today, the global economy has grown to its strongest point, yet millions live in poverty, unemployment, and social decay. Most economic growth accrues to the richest one (1) per cent while the rest of mankind languishes. There are millions confronting malnutrition and famine and suffering from wars and other acts of aggression. We are also mindful of the ever-increasing threats posed by climate change. More and more, despite the doubters, we are seeing its impact, and recently, 2023 was deemed the hottest in history. It is no longer a threat of the future but a reality of our present.

Today, we also cannot ignore the troubling situation in Palestine, which has been under Israeli bombardment with the support of its allies for more than six (6) months now. The loss of life, the destruction of property, and the hardships imposed on the Palestinian people are abominable. There can be no justifiable reason for the treatment meted out, and we are in solidarity with the people of Gaza as we call for an immediate ceasefire, the release of humanitarian assistance and a two (2) state solution consistent with the 1967 agreement. We recognise an urgent need to address the situation in the region, which has the potential of drawing in other nations and bringing about a much larger conflict. We note, too, the continuing conflict in Ukraine, which has also brought about untold destruction and loss of life, and urge a peaceful end to the conflict.

Our solidarity is also extended to the people of Cuba, who remain an inspiring symbol of struggle as they seek to chart a new and just path. Indeed, we are inspired as we move forward even stronger, knowing that a better world is possible with equality among people and fairness, justness and social justice.

Comrades, as we celebrate Labour Day 2024, we again extend best wishes to all Guyanese and workers worldwide. Let us continue imbued with a greater sense of purpose, inspired to realise a better tomorrow for future generations. Remember, we have nothing to lose but our chains.

Long live GAWU!

Long live FITUG!

Long live the working class!