Opposition, Govt clash over dismissed sugar workers, unemployment rate
By Davina Ramdass
The Opposition People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) Member of Parliament and Government Ministers on Wednesday clashed at the Labour Day rally on the issues of fired sugar workers as well as the high rates of unemployment in Guyana.
Opposition MP Vickram Bharrat blasted the Government for firing the sugar workers, contributing to the number of jobless people in the country.
Bharrat was at the time addressing workers at the Labour Day rally held at the National Park.
“Our teachers should be in the classrooms preparing our future generation and not on the street protesting for salary increases and better working conditions. Our bauxite workers should not block rivers and roadways to attract the attention of employers, union leaders and Government officials. Our sugar workers should not be put on the breadline, unable to provide for their families due to the closure of estates without assistance or alternative,” he told the gathering.
The MP added, “We are already faced with a high unemployment rate, especially among our young people in a country with such a small workforce. Today as we celebrate, there are over 30,000 Guyanese without jobs due to the closure of key industries and businesses, lack of education for employment in new and technical fields, a sluggish economy, contracting productive sectors, a complete lack of investments (are) among the contributing factors.”
Bharrat took the opportunity to remind workers gathered at the National Park that there are several persons unable to provide for their families and even send their children to school as a result of the move made by the Government to close the sugar estates.
However, Attorney General Basil Williams, who represented the A Partnership for National Unity/Alliance For Change (APNU/AFC) Administration at the rally, told workers the sugar industry was actually downsized to save it.
“We are not responsible for the predicament of the sugar workers in Guyana… we spent within the first three years $30 billion and what we were forced to do because of the Skeldon Sugar Factory… we have had to downsize the industry to save it and even those sugar industries that are now extant they are doing very well,” he added.
In this regard, the Attorney General said the Government will continue to “take care” of the sugar workers. He however did not say how Government has been taking care of the fired workers.
While responding to the PPP MP on the issue of unemployment, he assured that the Government is aware of the number of people that are currently jobless and is working to reduce the figures.
The Skeldon, Rose Hall and East Demerara (Enmore) estates were closed in December 2017, leaving thousands of workers jobless. The Wales Sugar Estate was the first to shut down in 2016.
Only three estates are currently in operation – Albion, Blairmont and Uitvlugt.
Meanwhile, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG) was represented by the Union’s Treasurer, Seepaul Narine, who said Labour Day celebrations this year come at a time when workers are struggling to keep their heads above water due to increased water rates, transportation costs and other pressures.
“Several matters cannot escape our attention at this time given the bearing they have on workers wellbeing. High on that list are the heavy burdens nowadays that workers are made to fetch occasion largely by increased taxation. We have on several occasions expressed our deep concern and dismay regarding the situation which has seen several essential items falling under the tax hammer,” Narine explained.
Meanwhile, President of the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC), Coretta McDonald told Government that they need to find more jobs for the youths. She urged that social polices be quickly designed to remedy the situation as she also lobbied for gender equality in the workplace.
Furthermore, McDonald told the gathering that the country deserves leaders that are not in love with money but who are loyal to their posts.
“We need leaders who are not in love with money but who are in love with social justice. Let me remind our politicians that we do not need leaders who are in love with publicity but we need those leaders who are in love with humanity. Guyana is ready to move and we cannot move forward if it’s about I and them. We cannot move forward if it’s about race and colour or creed, within the labour movement we see workers and the issues that our workers face they are common across the board and so I would want to urge us all to remember the principles that our forefathers fought for,” she shared.
Additionally, General Secretary of the GTUC, Lincoln Lewis told Government that they need to look into the natural resources industry to ensure workers there are not being exploited.
He warned, “The exploitation of oil and gas, another natural resource, that attract external investment and attention, similar to what happened in bauxite, gold, diamond and forestry must be looked at. We have to guard against where our citizens are being forced to settle for the crumbs. There must be a new approach to making sure Guyanese benefit tremendously from these resources. Already it has been brought to labour’s attention that there exits have disparity in remuneration for locals doing the same job as foreign labourers”.
May Day march
Nevertheless, workers were well represented by their respective unions at the Labour Day march in Georgetown on Wednesday.
The atmosphere when hundreds of workers marched along the streets in observance of workers’ day was almost electric as they danced and sang songs of solidarity along the trail.
Some began assembling at Parade Ground from as early as 07:30h as they prepared themselves for the march.
The march saw the participation of a number of workers’ unions, including the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU), the Guyana Labour Union (GLU), the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG) and the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) among a number of others.
Labour Day has always been observed in Guyana on the first day in May since the 1930s. It commemorates the struggles of workers and their significant input into society. Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, the father of trade unionism, is remembered on that day as he fought for the rights of workers.