The story of Pawan Etwaroo of Cumberland Primary— who gained 520 marks at the NGSA to earn a place at Queen’s College, the nation’s premier Secondary School— is not just heart-warming one of a young boy overcoming adversities and succeeding against great odds, but also a heart-breaking reminder of the plight of the 7000+ sugar workers who were fired when the PNC-led Government unilaterally and precipitately shut down four of the seven sugar estates in the country.
Pawan Etwaroo’s father had been employed at Rose Hall Estate but has remained unemployed since 2017 when that facility was shuttered. This has been the tragic fate of most of the other workers – 5000 from GuySuCo’s payroll and 2000 from private farmers – who supplied the corporation with sugar cane. The 51 year-old ex-sugar worker revealed that after 30 years of labour on the estate, he was still unable to build a house and finally only did so with his severance pay, which he and his fellow fired workers had to protest for before finally receiving, even though it was their legal right.
There have been complaints that the Government did not conduct a social impact study before making their draconian decision; but really, they did not need to. The PNC and AFC have been complaining for years about the extreme hardships inflicted on the 4000 workers at Linden who lost their jobs when the industry was downsized, ironically by the PNC-Government of Desmond Hoyte. And this was in the face of a $2 billion scheme – LEAP – to fund entrepreneurial activities and job creation, on top of free unlimited electricity. The Government is fully aware of the social pathologies that explode “like a sore” in such situations.
In a blaze of publicity, the Government has rushed to present “scholarships” to young Etwaroo and his peer who also scored the same mark. But these youngsters had already qualified for entry into whichever schools they chose and the tablets presented were merely electioneering photo-ops. Each of those 7000 fired sugar workers were heads of households with children. The stories of the difficulty in sending their children to schools were well reported in all the three dailies. Yet, the PNC-led Government has not launched a single programme to assist those children – who are by definition poor and marginalised. The elder Etwaroo explained that he was frantically – but unsuccessfully— seeking employment. He was not looking for hand-outs, which he had to accept from “relatives”.
While the Government has been unrolling “job training” and sharing out lands, these projects have been noticeably missing from the sugar belt in general, and the closed ones in particular. The sordid fact of the matter is that under this Government, unemployment has grown in other sectors than in sugar – especially in construction, which grew exponentially during the PPP regime. While housing schemes had mushroomed under the PPP – spearheaded by its Presidential Candidate Irfaan Ali— the Government has focused its efforts on doling out multi-acre plots for housing and speculation to its insiders.
The most bizarre aspect of the tragedy at a macro level has been the fate of the closed estates, which the Government had insisted would be sold and the monies used to rehabilitate and diversify the remaining estates to make them viable. The Government’s own CoI – which included its appointed Chairman Clive Thomas – however, had recommended the estates be subsidized for three years— at most $24 billion – and then brought to a point of sale. Instead, the SPU formed by the Government to consummate the sale has floated a $30 billion bond using the estates as collateral and sat on it while paying $1.5Billion annually in interest. In the meantime, the estates have reverted to “bush” and the factories have recently been described by the Finance Minister as “scrap iron”. Based on the Government’s modus operandi over the last four years, it is most likely that they are preparing to hand out the assets to party members, friends and cronies for the proverbial “song”.
While the 7000 sink into misery.