Guyana and many countries around the world will tomorrow observe Labour Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, or simply May Day. Generally, on this day, labour and labourers from the working class are celebrated. As achievements are boasted upon, the occasion is also used to highlight challenges faced. Here, in Guyana, two different perspectives are sometimes presented — from both the Government and the Opposition.
As expected, the Government will boast of its efforts to safeguard the welfare of workers, which would encompass protecting their rights, thwarting exploitation, improving working conditions, and increasing wages and salaries. The language will be skilfully crafted to convince workers that the Government cares about them.
In such instances, for example, a miniscule increase of a Gy$1000.00 will be made to appear hefty, with powers to bring ends together.
The Opposition will naturally call out Government on its lack of care, inability to take action, and deliberate attempts to mislead the already burdened workforce.
Aside from the expected dual perspectives — even from the unions — there is always the question of: What is there to celebrate? The answer has to be in the context of what the workers are experiencing, and what would have been responsible for their current situation.
Within recent times, there have been accusations of actions tantamount to exploitation being levelled against some employers. In one high-profile case, the authority with the responsibility to safeguard workers’ rights was accused of dragging its feet on the matter. While there was an intervention eventually, questions were asked about promptness. That in itself exposes a major grouse of both workers and trade unions: the absence of a designated Ministry of Labour.
Under the current APNU/AFC Government, the Ministry was abandoned, and matters pertaining to labour are now confined to a department under the Ministry of Social Protection. This has been viewed by many as a deliberate attempt to de-emphasise the importance of labour, especially when thousands of workers were fired, including those following the abrupt closing of some sugar estates. The plight of the sugar workers and the humiliation they were forced to endure to collect their rightfully earned severance pay are well documented. Those workers felt victimised, and that feeling was compounded by the seeming lack of proper recourse, due to the absence of a designated Ministry. They would have also felt that their situation was not made a priority, causing some to ponder whether that was the Government’s intention all along.
It still remains mind-boggling that Government would scrap the Labour Ministry as existed under the previous Administration throughout its tenure, and, to date, has not taken corrective action despite vehement calls even from some sympathetic to it. A refusal to care is what workers may have taken away from that particular action by the Government — a Government that boasted during the election campaign of making workers a priority.
The abandonment of the Labour Ministry is a fact. There are other facts: the untold number of new taxes introduced on the backs of workers by this Government; the constant rise in the cost of living, which has not been mitigated by the minuscule increase offered; the closing of some industries and many businesses, forcing thousands jobless and onto the breadline; the increases in vendors’ licences and farmland rentals; and the growing social ills and humiliation that have redounded from the above.
All this occurred within the short period of four years since the Government took office, with one of its first actions being the firing of some two thousand Indigenous workers in what many deemed an act of political vendetta.
Yet the Government spares no effort to try and convince on how caring it is towards the workers. The reality of what transpired has rendered those boasts disingenuous.
A parallel is very noticeable in its current rush to take government to the people in parts of the country. For almost four years, many complained bitterly of being unable to engage a vast majority of Government officials. There were no outreaches, as many Ministers took to the comfort of their offices. This is despite their having promised a Government for the people. Many interpreted that as callous disregard for the populace by a Government that was seemingly unwilling to hear first-hand what are the issue affecting people.
Suddenly, the no-confidence motion of December 21, 2018 has awakened the realisation of the need to engage the populace, hence the current frenzy. With a plethora of accusations of corruption levelled against it, including prioritising its own comfort at the expense of the workers, the Government is now trying to appease as an election nears. Fresh promises are now being made, and may be reiterated tomorrow, when Government officials speak at May Day events.
It takes either gumption or barefacedness on the part of Government to speak to the workers when they fully know that labour-related priorities have been impacted by the scrapping of the Ministry, and workers are experiencing tremendous difficulties in providing for their families, having been shackled by taxation and the high cost of living as unemployment rapidly continues.
The facts pertaining to what truly transpired within the past four years with regard to the Government’s treatment of labour would rule out gumption. That leaves little or nothing to celebrate.