The Granger ‘caretaker’ Administration and its cheerleaders have launched a campaign to criticise and denounce commitments to re-open the Skeldon, Rose Hall and Enmore estates. In furthering their efforts, it appears to us that the Government and a few of its mouthpieces are prepared to descend to lowest depths and to peddle clear falsehoods in what could be seen as a sordid effort to discredit such laudable advocacy. It is hard to imagine that any Guyanese leader would actively engage in talks to deny our citizens an opportunity to earn a living, to feed their families, to send their children to school and to achieve their life’s aspirations. But then, as we have come to learn, the current crop of Executive has broken the mould and not in a positive way. On many occasions, we have seen their unexplained and unjustified departure from time-tested and even lawful conventions and practices and some of their actions were only put right after judicial intervention.
Of course, the sugar workers, their families, their communities and their plight have never really been sympathetically addressed by our now-a-day Governmental leaders. Indeed, they have treated this group of Guyanese with utter contempt. It seems to be that the coalition despises the sugar belt so much so that, seemingly, everything and anything will be furthered to trample on the well-being of those who are situated in the belt.
For us, it is clear that the entire sugar policy of the Government was done with one intention: to punish the sugar workers, their families and their villages. The obviously glaring question is why? What have these people done to the big-wigs in the Government to be treated the way they are? What perceived crime did they commit to have one injustice after another perpetuated on them? Of course, the closest and clearest answer we believe came from Prime Ministerial hopeful and current Vice President and Minister of Public Security, Khemraj Ramjattan. The erstwhile gentleman, according to a December 7, 2018 DPI report in addressing the Opposition, let the cat out of the bag when he said “you wanted to employ your people because you are very strong in the sugar estate areas. It was jobs for the boys… so please don’t play to your base that we are the ones who are discriminating”. Mr Ramjattan’s utterances are similar to that unreleased, possible ducked, White Paper on Sugar which said that “most of the employees of GuySuCo are supporters of the Opposition political party, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP)”. The reality, it appears, is that Government’s policy has no basis other than partisan politics. It is that crude way of thinking that is on display once again as the Government fights tooth and nail to denigrate just the suggestion of the re-opening of closed estates.
The reality is that the estate closure shouldn’t have happened in the first place. The fact that it did only reveals, even more clearly, the short-sightedness that exists in Government. It has also demonstrated, to us at least, that the Administration cannot really grapple with the manifold responsibilities of administering the State. Any government, worth its salt, would have considered the industry holistically. They would not have restricted themselves to the realm of financial profits only. To do this is an absurdity. The sugar industry, as many including GAWU have pointed out, has to be seen from economic viability, which goes much deeper and wider than simply financial analysis. Certainly, if the Administration were to adopt its sugar yardstick to other areas of the State, it may well find that certain government services are not financially viable. Would those services also be placed on the chopping block? We of the GAWU wouldn’t support such an approach recognising the wider economic benefits of those services.
The truth is when viewing the industry through an economic lens, the argument for sugar’s minimisation becomes even weaker. Certainly, the estates were more than just producers of sugar and molasses; they were the hive of activities and represented a beacon of sustenance and hope. Apart from being major employers, the estates’ operation ensured that villages were drained, thus, preventing sickness and diseases and supported local farming activities. The consumption activities by sugar workers and their families sustained many several businesses and vendors. Workers’ NIS deductions contributed to the viability of the Scheme. Rates and taxes payments to local authorities allowed those bodies to fulfil their mandates. The export from the industry brought in valued and valuable foreign exchange and assisted us to pay for our imports. These are among the several factors that the Administration disregarded, or palpably ignored when it decided to close those estates.
The December 8 Guyana Chronicle quotes the seldom-utilised Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo as saying “…this Government has been fair and compassionate…” to sugar workers. We ask, how so? There was hardly any compassion shown when Nagamootoo and company put 7000 persons out-of-work and put tens of thousands into hard times in the Christmas season? Even Natural Resources Minister Raphael Trotman recently said that “this is not the time of the year that we should see workers going home…” Also, where was the fairness, when this Government denied sugar workers a pay rise? In fact, Mr Nagamootoo, who has the least responsibility of all his predecessors, is quoted by the Chronicle to say “…the Government cannot automatically intervene…” but it was the same Nagamootoo in the December 19, 2010, Stabroek News who said that “the Government would do well also to explore all possibilities to give the sugar workers even a nominal wage increase. Zero is an insult, not an option.” The PM moved from the ridiculous to fiction when the Chronicle reported that he said that some redundant sugar workers “…were also given plots of land to farm…” Where are the lands Mr Nagamootoo spoke about? Who were the workers that benefitted? What sort of activities have these workers ventured into? As far as we know, not even an inch of sugar lands was given to the displaced workers.
Minister Trotman in the December 7 Guyana Chronicle deemed talk of re-opening estates as “disingenuous”. But wasn’t it disingenuous when now-Minister Ramjattan spoke at the APNU/AFC Rally at Whim on March 29, 2015, and committed that the coalition “…will not, in any way, close the sugar industry…?” Wasn’t it also disingenuous when candidate David Granger, according to a March 18, 2015, Inews report, who said: “We are not going to throw the sugar industry through the window”? Also, wasn’t it disingenuous when the APNU/AFC went into the sugar belt and promised workers a 20% pay rise? Mr Trotman said “with oil coming, we will transition most if not all those workers in the sugar industry…” but in the next breath, we are told “we had trained about 100 sugar workers…” So three years after Wales closed its doors, and two years after Skeldon, Rose Hall and East Demerara ceased operation, the Minister admitted that one-seventieth of all who have been displaced were trained for the oil and gas sector. At this rate, it will take the good Minister the next 138 years before each worker is transitioned. And yet Mr Trotman wants to talk about disingenuousness.
The Chronicle also quoted APNU General Secretary Mr Joseph Harmon as saying on the matter that “…it is not something that any right-thinking Guyanese can take on face value”. Mr Harmon, we believe, should be the last to speak about taking things at face value. It was the same gentleman, when he was Minister of State, according to a November 16, 2017 DPI report that said the “closure of the Rose Hall and Enmore estates will most likely take effect in 2018 since a system is not yet in place for the sugar workers following closure”. The APNU GS was quoted by the DPI then as saying “…the welfare of the workers is the primary consideration of this Administration and we will not see workers put on the breadline in that manner, without some recourse”. Of course, mere days after Mr Harmon made those statements, the GuySuCo kicked the closure process into high gear and began to inform workers they would not be needed any longer. Can we really take Mr Harmon at face value?
The December 8 Guyana Chronicle editorial posits that “…the promised reopening of the estates makes no economic sense”. But we fail to see how the Chronicle is really making any sense. The NIS in its 2016 Annual Report pointed out that the closure of the estates will “…have a material impact on the contributions receivable by the Scheme”. In 2018, on two occasions – in May and October – the Government was forced to approach the Parliament for supplementary allocations to the NDIA in order for that body to cover the costs of the D&I responsibilities that were previously undertaken by the sugar industry. Of course, too, the hardest hit has been the workers and their families who have been plunged into misery. Life for them has become surreal as the days have become harder. It is an uphill task to figure out how to meet life’s ends. Certainly, such factors make all the sense whether it is economic, social, human and even common sense. There is no argument in our view.
The fact that the Government has gone on the defensive on this issue is most telling. It appears to be mortally afraid of the re-opening of the estates. We wonder whether there is more than meets the eye. Already, we have learnt about plans to divvy up the sugar lands on the East Coast of Demerara. Is this a spoke in the wheel? But that aside, why doesn’t the APNU/AFC Government want the 5000+ of East Demerara, Rose Hall and Skeldon to be re-employed? Why should these people be denied their bread and butter? Why should their dreams be abandoned? Why should they not live a happy life? Certainly, in our view, they, like all Guyanese, are just as deserving.