With the imminent closure of more sugar estates in Guyana, the issue of the plight of sugar workers has been dominating the news over the past few weeks. Everyone knows that no matter how the authorities try to spin the issue, the resulting impact on individuals and communities would be quite significant and perhaps will take years before they can fully recover.
From all indications, the Government seems bent on moving forward with its plans to close more of the estates and is moving to finalise its options with regard to the future of the sugar industry. Minister of State Joseph Harmon had told the media that Government is in the process of examining proposals with respect to diversification. However, very little to this date was mentioned about how the Administration intends to deal with the communities that would be affected due to the large number of persons who will be out of employment.
It is also quite unfortunate that in spite of the daily protests by sugar workers across the country calling for the Administration to look into their concerns, officials have basically turned a blind eye and are operating as if they are unconcerned. For example, the Wales workers’ contention is that they cannot be compelled to travel to the Uitvlugt Estate on the West Coast of Demerara, some 22 miles from Wales, hence some of them opted for a severance package.
While the authorities are claiming that workers received their payments, some workers are claiming otherwise. They had taken their protest over non-payment of severance packages which were promised since December 2016 to the President’s office, but very little was, or is, being done to engage them on the issue.
To begin with, we believe that the situation would not have escalated to this level had the Government and Guyana Sugar Corporation’s (GuySuCo) management been more honest and open from the inception. After all, this is peoples’ livelihoods that would be affected and they deserve to be fully engaged on what matters to them. Policymakers cannot just make decisions at the top and proceed with implementing those decisions without taking into consideration how peoples’ lives would be impacted.
More importantly, we support the view of many commentators and analysts that no informed decision can be made on the sugar industry without any proper and detailed impact assessments being carried out. At one of its stakeholder consultation meetings some time ago, Government officials indicated that no social or economic assessments were done before, particularly ahead of its decision to close the Wales Sugar Factory, to ascertain the implications.
One is therefore forced to ask how can the Administration move ahead with such a policy without taking into account how it will affect thousands of families, hundreds of communities and businesses and the national economy as a whole.
Just a few days ago, economist Sasenarine Singh pointed out that the premise upon which such a decision was taken was “totally non-transparent” and lacked “a comprehensive understanding of the social impact on rural Guyana”. He explained that if the intention was to reduce the drag on the fiscal performance of the economy, then the first thing any skillful policymaker would have done was conduct a full-blown Socioeconomic Impact Assessment (SIA) on different options available to Government.
On his part, Agriculture Minister Noel Holder had explained that due to time constraints and the need to resolve the operating expenses at GuySuCo, Government could not conduct a social and economic impact assessment before closing estates. He had said that an impact assessment would take between nine months to a year to be completed and Government and the economy could not afford to maintain the system and the bailouts.
We urge the Government to focus on developing a plan of action to have these assessments completed and to engage industry stakeholders, especially the workers’ union to come up with a solution that would see their interests being foremost. It is still not too late.