Govt continues to pretend sugar workers “don’t exist”- former Agri Minister

Albion workers strike

Some of the hundreds of workers employed at the Albion Sugar Estate, Berbice, who downed their tools since Thursday to protest for wage increases after five years of “frozen wages”.

Guyana’s sugar industry, like those in other parts of the world, has its difficulties but sugar remains an important part of the country’s economic and social welfare infrastructure.
This is according to Former Agriculture Minister, Dr Leslie Ramsammy, who on Saturday stated that this vital industry still has a critical role to play in solidifying the country’s status as a “high middle-income, middle-development” country.
However, the actions and non-actions by the APNU/AFC Government in its treatment towards the flailing sugar industry and the rights of sugar workers, particularly in Berbice, are clear indications that the administration does not consider them to be of any importance, he said.
According to the former Agriculture Minister, the current Finance Minister, Winston Jordan, proudly declared the diversification of the sugar industry is on hold.
“We have heard nothing more about the privatisation of the closed sugar estates. They have said nothing about the $30 billion loan burden they placed on the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo). The people of Guyana are totally in the dark [about] what happened to the money, while more than a billion dollars have been paid in interest. It is sheer idiocy to downsize or to close sugar.”
He added that at present, both the sugar industry and the sugar workers across Guyana are “under siege” and that while the sugar workers attached to the Albion Sugar Estate, Berbice, are on strike action, the APNU/AFC Government continues to pretend that these workers do not exist.
“The Minister of Agriculture is silent, paying no heed, the Minister of Business, perhaps, is unaware he should have an interest in these workers, not only is Albion Sugar Estate an important business entity, but the village economy with its small businesses…usually grounding to a halt when sugar workers are off the job. The Minister with responsibility for Labour is in “la la” land. The President could care less. Ramsammy noted.
The former Agriculture Minister pointed out that the Albion sugar workers, like their counterparts at the Blairmont and Uitvlugt sugar estates, have had their wages frozen since 2014.
“After more than four years, under APNU/AFC, sugar workers have not had any wage increase, none for 2015, none for 2016, none for 2017, none for 2018 and none so far for 2019. Once before, under Forbes Burnham, in the 1980s, sugar workers had their wages frozen. For the period 1992 to end 2014, under the PPP, sugar workers received an annual wage increase every single year, it is, therefore, not a surprise that these sugar workers are agitated and taking action to highlight their plight.”
He also alluded to the fact that the five-year frozen wage increase is not the only issue that is negatively affecting sugar workers, specifically in the case of those employed at the Albion Sugar Estate, they are upset over the “arbitrary” increase in the weekly target from 2100 tonnes to 2140 tonnes.
Dr Ramsammy further stated that the frozen wage increase and the erosion in other benefits for sugar workers across the country come amidst upcoming general elections when these workers are expectant of hearing promises “like the ones they heard before the 2015 election”.
He pointed out the now-infamous promise that sugar workers deserved a 20 per cent annual increase in wages and benefits, the lowering of targets for production bonuses etc. None of these promises, he added, were kept, but even more egregious and insulting is that these workers have been deprived the annual increases and production target bonus they were used to. “There was the promise that no estate would be closed, yet four of the seven estates were brutally closed, bringing untold poverty to those communities.”
He added that the downsizing of GuySuCo from seven operating factories to just three and the downsizing of the employee pool by more than 7000 workers were clearly the beginning of a process to close sugar in its entirety in Guyana.