Home News Op-Ed: The Bitter Politics of Sweet Sugar
– a classic saga of politics, betrayal and incompetence
The tragedy confronting the sugar industry in Guyana and the fifteen thousand workers and their families — along with the tens of thousands of others who are likely to be affected indirectly — is a classic saga of politics, betrayal and incompetence.
During the elections campaign of 2011, Mr Moses Nagamootoo spoke to the sugar workers at the “Order Lines” of almost every estate, and promised them a 25% increase in wages should the AFC win those elections. This promise was reiterated on public platforms throughout the country, and also in the media.
After those elections, the AFC teamed up with the APNU, and with their combined one seat-majority in the National Assembly, blocked almost every financial injection from the Treasury to GuySuCo.
These were actions which manifestly derogated from the promise for wages’ increase and support for the sugar industry and its workers, publicly made and advocated only a few months prior. The AFC was in collusion with the APNU when the APNU’s then economic strongman, Carl Greenidge, surmised from the floor of the National Assembly in the 10th Parliament that financial assistance to GuySuCo is pouring money into “a bottomless black hole.”
During the Budgetary presentations of 2013 and 2014, the sugar workers came in protest in front of the Parliament Buildings. They manhandled Moses Nagamootoo when he attempted to speak to them. Away from the sugar workers, and in the confines of the National Assembly, Nagamootoo boasted, “the sugar workers had their say, and now the scissors will have its day,” as they cut sums of money budgeted for the sugar industry.
As 2015 elections approached, again the political song and dance changed. A hypocritical hand of goodwill was extended by the APNU/AFC coalition to the sugar workers, in order to get their votes. This diabolical agenda again was led by Mr Moses Nagamootoo. Mr Khemraj Ramjattan was a close second. At the Whim Rally, Ramjattan promised no closure of estates, but new management and an economic turnaround for the sugar industry. The sugar workers are generally a trusting people, and again hundreds of them fell victim of the fraud. They voted for the coalition.
When the first bumper crop came, soon after the elections, Nagamootoo, in an act of incomparable guile, took credit for and on behalf of the coalition Government. He proclaimed the beginning of a new vista for the sugar industry. However, when the next crop produced recording-breaking low outputs, the stories of doom resurfaced about the sugar industry. Scorn and disdain were poured upon the sugar workers, and they were portrayed to other workers as parasites, living-off the blood and sweat of those other workers. It was a naked and malicious strategy of dividing the working class along the lines of politics and race.
Suddenly, the sugar industry and its workers became the greatest burden on the backs of taxpayers. The sustenance which the sugar industry provided to this nation and its people for over 300 years was obliterated. The use of billions of dollars from the sugar levy, extracted from the real wages of the sugar workers and pumped into the Bauxite industry to keep it alive for nearly two decades, in order to provide a livelihood for tens of thousands in Linden, Ituni and Kwakwani, was vapourised.
The sugar workers and their unions were made the object of such ridicule that not only were they deprived of their Annual Production Incentive (API), but they also did not benefit from a dollar in wage increase, while employees from every other state sector enjoyed annual increases by a minimum of 5%.When the unions attempted to negotiate a wage increase, they were told that GuySuCo was actively considering a decrease in wages!
Closure of Wales
It is against that backdrop that Wales was closed, with such arrogance that the unions and the workers read about it as a small news item hidden several pages down in the national newspapers. The disclosure came not from GuySuCo, but from the Government. Not a word of consultation, neither with the workers nor their unions. Nagamootoo was conveniently out of the country.
When public pressure rose, the workers were promised severance pay, land to do farming, and employment at Uitvlugt estate. None has materialised a year after. Instead, the nation is informed that Uitvlugt, Enmore and Rose Hall estates will now suffer closures; Skeldon is up for sale.
The machinations which have occurred along the way provide some of the most striking examples of hypocrisy and deception seen in modern times.
Earlier this year, the unions and the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) were invited to provide alternative plans to demonstrate how the industry can enjoy a turnaround in fortunes. This was followed up with a series of engagements between a team representing the Government and teams representing the PPP and the unions. As far as I am aware, those engagements have not been brought to a halt. A White Paper, and then a State Paper, were subsequently laid in the National Assembly, for there to be a national debate on the way forward for the sugar industry. These initiatives held out great hope for the workers and their families. Everyone felt that the Government was acting in good faith, and was really interested in a collaborative effort towards finding a solution.
Wesley Kirton as a glorified real estate agent
Lo and behold, we accidentally stumbled upon a letter written by Mr Joseph Harmon, Minister of State, acting on behalf of the Government of Guyana in appointing Wesley Kirton as a glorified real estate agent to sell all of GuySuCo, or any part thereof. This letter was written since November 2016.What this means, therefore, is that all the actions of the Government thereafter, conveying the impression that they were engaging on GuySuCo, were all a charade.
Only a few days ago, I wrote a civil and balanced letter querying a social event held in Florida last Saturday, and the legality of funds raised therefrom. My queries were genuine and made in good faith as a Member of Parliament. The very same Mr Kirton responded. His response was as abusive as it was venomous. I refuse to descend to such level by dignifying his toxic rantings with a response. However, I was aghast and at a loss to understand the nature of his response. Then I saw the correspondence, and realised that he was singing for his supper. His commission fee for the sale may set him good for life.
The Government’s decision to sell GuySuCo is not based on any economic analysis, or on the Commission of Inquiry’s Report, or upon any impact assessment done. Indeed, other than political considerations, no one knows on what basis the Government is acting.
GuySuCo is not simply a business, and cannot be viewed from the perspective of profit and loss. It is an institution. The same way that the Obama Administration could not have afforded to allow certain huge companies to crash during the financial meltdown, and therefore bailed out those companies, the same way the Guyanese economy cannot afford GuySuCo’s closure.
The cost of closure exceeds cost to keep operation
It still is the largest employer in Guyana, employing over 15,000 workers. It still is one of our largest foreign exchange earners, and one of our major direct contributors to GDP. When one takes into account the fact that nearly 100,000 persons directly or indirectly depend upon GuySuCo for their livelihood; the total amount of taxes which they pay; their NIS contributions; the economic impact of their domestic consumption; the cost of finding alternative employment; the cost of maintaining the drainage and irrigation network in the backlands right across the coast; the cost of healthcare and other social services which are provided by GuySuCo to communities nationwide; the cost of provision of electricity for 90,000 households in Berbice by the Skeldon Co-Generation Plant (as per Dr Clive Thomas), one will quickly see that the cost of closing the estates far exceeds the cost of keeping them functioning.
When one adds to this equation the over $30 billion which were disbursed to Guyana for the abolition of the subsidies and which were used as budgetary support for other sectors, with only a small fraction going towards GuySuCo, the case becomes even more unassailable.
For the reasons I have adumbrated, I stand firmly in solidarity with the sugar workers and their families. Their cause is just; win we must, history and time are on our side. We will grind oppression into the dust.
(The above is an opinion piece written by former Attorney General and current PPP/C Member of Parliament Mohabir Anil Nandlall)