…as company refuses to meet with workers’ union it claims is “unrecognised”
…workers will continue to block river – unions
The Guyana Bauxite and General Workers Union (GBGWU) and other major trade union representatives were met with grave disappointment on Monday when they turned up for a meeting with representatives of the Labour Department and aluminium company, RUSAL.
Instead of being able to start discussions with the aim of resolving the issue of the 90 workers being dismissed by the company, the team of trade union leaders were met with the news that RUSAL had requested not to meet with them unless President of GBGWU Lincoln Lewis was absent from the meeting.
Both RUSAL and the union representatives were invited to that meeting by the Labour Department. Based on the insistence of the RUSAL representatives not to meet with Lewis, the Department of Labour held a meeting with the RUSAL representatives before meeting with the union representatives separately.
This created uproar amongst the trade union representatives, which also led to Lewis, who is also General Secretary of the Guyana Trade Union Congress (GTUC), issuing a staunch reminder to the company that they are obligated to abide by the laws of Guyana.
Lewis argued that RUSAL cannot choose whom they want to speak with and when. “We have a problem with RUSAL. The problem is they come now to tell this union who must lead it, who must speak on behalf of it. The next thing they might come in Guyana and do is tell us who is the President of this country,” Lewis told media operatives. The trade unionist said that it is time that Government stands up and demands that the company respect the laws or they will treat workers worse.
Meanwhile, President of GTUC Coretta McDonald said she believes it was disrespectful for the company to decide whom it wants as part of a union delegation. She said the Department of Labour should not have met with the company separately, which shows grave disrespect.
McDonald said RUSAL had requested that workers unblock the upper Berbice River. At present, barrels and other objects are lined across the Berbice River, preventing bauxite-carrying barges from passing. The company, she said, has promised to reinstate workers once that is done.
But the GTUC President noted that since 2009, there was no Collective Bargaining Agreement in place and there are tonnes of unresolved issues. “So, the union position is, we need to sit at the table, workers representatives and management, iron out our issues, after which, we will move to the next step. And they are not willing to do that,” she explained.
McDonald said the company is more interested in getting the river unblocked because they are spending close to $1 million per day, yet they are not prepared to give the workers more than one per cent.
“Seventeen days would have passed…but they are not prepared to use those monies. But we will continue to block the river until they decide that they will recognise the union, and they are going to sit and talk with the representatives of the union regardless, whoever is there,” she said.
Junior Minister of Social Protection Keith Scott, who holds responsibility for the labour sector said that they both will have to finally meet. He maintained that in industrial relation practices, the two parties involved in any dispute must meet, and he believes they will meet at some point.
“While we encourage investment, we have to maintain a stable investment climate which we have been doing. It doesn’t matter who threatened who or not, our country comes first and that is the priority,” Scott said.
But Lewis feels that the Minister should invoke provisions of the labour laws and force the union and RUSAL to go to arbitration. He said that the blocking of the river could be used to appoint an arbitration tribunal and under the Collective Labour Agreement, it says that either party can request the matter to go to arbitration.
Natural Resources Minister Raphael Trotman said recently that Government is geared at taking action against the company even if it means having the company shut down its operations in Guyana. In the meantime, the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) is conducting a technical and legal assessment of all of RUSAL’S operations.
Sixty-one workers were fired by the Russian-owned company after they protested a one per cent salary increase, which they said was agreed to by Government. Following a meeting with Government, RUSAL refused to reinstate the workers and subsequently dismissed 30 more persons from the department in order to temporarily close it as a result of the strike actions.
On Thursday, union leaders in Guyana took to the streets to stage a picketing exercise in front of RUSAL’S headquarters in Queenstown, Georgetown. The leaders called on Government to take action against the foreign enterprise, citing that it had violated laws of Guyana and the rights of workers.
Last week, Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo said that under the People’s Progressive Party Civic (PPP/C) Administration, a similar matter had arisen, and the then Administration managed to save the jobs that were at risk.
Jagdeo added, “we took back the company that was private to the treasury, brought it back, renationalised it and kept it going until we found a replacement…we worked hard to protect those workers there so our track record is important”.
According to him, not only are private and foreign companies taking advantage of workers but Government Ministers are doing the same while making specific reference to the 7000 sacked sugar workers who had to go to the Judiciary to get their legally entitled severance payments.
The Opposition Leader added that the then PPP Administration exhausted every effort to ensure that workers’ rights are protected, especially with the passing of several laws which mandated severance payments among others.
Jagdeo pointed out that he has been lending Government advice which seems to be of no use.