The GAWU has noticed that Mr Lincoln Lewis wrote in his column of June 13, 2021 an article titled “ILO Study on closure of sugar estates proves workers let down by government”. The article appeared in the news outfit Village Voice, and in it he made several incorrect statements regarding the sugar industry, which we believe require clarity to avoid any confusion or misconception.
Right off the bat, in the very second sentence of the column, Mr Lewis says “…study set out to investigate the impact of estates closure on the workers and their communities dating back to the closure of the Diamond Estate…”
This, of course, is a clear mis-statement. The study on page eleven says “the Government of Guyana closed the Wales, East Demerara, Rose Hall and Skeldon estates between 2016 and 2017… [t]his study serves as a response to these closures…”.
It appears the columnist may have misinterpreted the report, or is engaged in wanton misinformation. Let us hope it is the former, rather than the latter, though it requires Lincoln to be careful about what he writes.
The columnist next claims that the closure of the East Demerara Estates was in line with some World Bank recommendation. Again, Mr Lewis appears either confused or uninformed. The World Bank’s recommendation was made prior to the new millennium. However, the Government of Guyana and GuySuCo then developed a strategy which convinced the World Bank that the recommendation was not necessary. Had this not been done, the World Bank would have withheld its support for the Skeldon project. Apart from that, we are unaware of any other recommendation.
Mr Lewis shared that sugar communities should be diversified into other economic activities. This, on the surface, may appear logical, but the question that must be asked is: how realisable are such feats? We need not remind Lincoln and the nation of the promises of the Coalition Government to undertake the very policy he is advocating. He may recall that Wales was to have been the launching pad for diversification. Today, now five (5) years after, this remains at best a pipe dream while, as the ILO study points out, people are facing real misery and hardship.
It is not our intention to throw cold water on the columnist’s idea, but to demonstrate it is easier said than done. We share Lincoln’s view that the divide between price and cost of production should be reduced, and eliminated over time, but he cannot rationally expect such objectives to be realised at the drop of a hat. It certainly would take some time, especially given the financial starvation the industry endured between 2015 and 2020.
But we hold that there are several worthwhile ventures which can realise the objective advanced by Lincoln. Already, we have learnt that enhanced emphasis on packaged sugar has begun to bear fruit. It is just one of many paths the industry has on the road to sustainability.
It is next said that “…[t]here is no reason why sugar workers should still be doing back-breaking work that mechanisation could provide for…”. We agree here with Lincoln, and maybe his unfamiliarity with developments in the industry may have precluded him from knowing that already there are mechanised and semi-mechanised cane harvesting.
This was an ongoing programme which was perplexingly stopped following the change of Government. Even the Sugar CoI mentioned that this process should be advanced, and recommended that a loan secured from the CDB for such purposes should be drawn down.
Despite the sensibleness of the Sugar CoI, it was ignored by the former powers-that-be.
On this score, we have learnt of efforts by GuySuCo to resume its mechanisation programme, and to expand it to other areas of operation.
We cannot disagree with Lincoln when he says “…the sugar workers deserve better, and better must be done for them…”. Certainly, despite deserving better, they were treated with discrimination at the hands of the former Government. Yet, today, many of those who criticise efforts to right that wrong were silent, or conspicuously absent, when such harshness was meted out to the workers.
Of course, we do recognise and appreciate that Lincoln did, at times, frankly express his views, though even he, after some time, had seemingly changed his tune.
Finally, Lincoln says no alternative opportunities were found for the workers of Diamond. Again, we excuse his unfamiliarity. Were he familiar, certainly he would have known that Diamond workers were offered employment at Wales, and several took up the offer, working there until that estate was closed in 2016.
We hope that we have brought clarity to the several possibly misinformed statements of the columnist, who maybe is divorced from the situation in the sugar industry.