Bitter, agonising Christmas for 3,500 sugar workers
By Neil Marks
The Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) will send home an estimated 3, 500 workers by the end of the year as part of plans to restructure the sugar industry.
The decision represents the largest retrenchment by any corporation, public or private, in recent history. In Berbice, where the decision to close estates has sent shockwaves across the region.
Workers from the Rose Hall Estate at Canje have begun receiving their letters, notifying them that they will be off the job from December 29, 2017.
It was at this estate close to 105 years ago 56 workers were injured and 15 workers were killed in a protest for a better life on the plantations. This week, the last beds of sugar cane would be harvested, and the estate will grind to a halt; 800 workers are being sent home.
Sookdeo Doodnauth, from Cane Field village, has been working on the sugar estate since he was 16 years old.
Just two months before he would reach the age of 60 and qualify for an estate pension, he would be sent home – a devastating blow for a man who had given his entire working life to the industry.
“My mother was pregnant when she took me to go work on the estate; that was since 1973. It was 11 of us,” he told the News Room at his home village of Cane Field, a stone’s throw away from the Rose Hall estate.
Mr Doodnauth’s 23-year-old son has also been served with a severance letter. Not all 800 letters have gone out, but they are being shared out gradually.
“Last week Thursday they called us and told us we will get a letter that our work is redundant,” said Isaac Rambarsan, now aged 52.
He has been working with the estate for 27 years. That has helped him to take care of his four children. His last job would be as a lorry dispatcher. He was hoping to work at the estate until age 60 so he could get a pension; the news of his severance has left him in despair.
“It would be a rough thing for me to get a job at my age, 52. Who will hire me to work?” he asked.
With views of the sugar fields and the estate to greet him as he wakes in the morning, Mr Deepanand Sugrim reflects on how ironic the name of his village is – Reliance. Indeed, he has 35 years of service with the estate and relied on it to care for his family.
“I don’t how to express my feelings. This is really, really hard. Whatever I achieved I achieved through GuySuCo.
“And right now, I bought a place on loan and I paying loan all the time. So I don’t know what will happen onwards,” he told the News Room.
With loans on his hand and an uncertain future, Deepanand has much to worry about. That worry has been transferred to his son Kishan, a young singer just out of school.
“My future dream was to become a doctor. I don’t know if that dream will be accomplished,” he said.
He added: “The President of Guyana needs to look at what will happen to not only me but other youths in Canje.”
Rose Hall is just one factory. At the Skeldon estate, some 1, 600 workers will be sent home by the end of the year; at Enmore on the East Coast, another 1, 000.
The Wales factory sent home some 300 workers last year and another 65 will go before the end of the year.
The Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) would need an estimated $5 billion to pay workers who are being sent home.
GuySuCo doesn’t have the money and would be expecting the government to foot the bill. Ministers today assured that the severance pay is covered in this year’s budget.
“I know that the Minister of Finance has actually said that the money which will go to GUySuCo, that the redundancy payments will be included in that,” Minister of State Joseph Harmon told the News Room at Public Buildings where the 2018 Budget Debate is ongoing.
“It’s in this Budget,” Noel Holder, the Minister of Agriculture added.
Overall, sugar production is projected to decline to 152,000 tonnes by the end of the year, a 17.2 percent reduction compared to 2016‘s output. By 2020, GuySuCo aims to reduce sugar production to just three factories and with 10, 000 workers, which would be 6,000 less workers than it currently has.
The Corporation sees itself being able to produce 150, 000 tonnes of sugar annually in the next three years from the estates that would be kept in operation – namely Albion and Blairmont in Berbice and Uitvlugt, West Coast Demerara.
While some workers in Berbice can keep their jobs and some will be transferred to other estates, there are hundreds upon hundreds of stories of devastation; stories from those who have toiled all their lives on the estate, only for their years of service to come to an abrupt, bitter end.
“I don’t know what we will do,” said Mr Doonauth.