By Bibi Khatoon
Giving assurance that the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) and the Special Purpose Unit (SPU) put in place to divest its resources are working to make the entity viable, Head of the SPU urged sugar workers to “keep the faith.”
Speaking at a one-day conference organised by the Guyana Agriculture and General Workers Union (GAWU), Colvin Heath-London told the workers that, “we all see and face that impact but what I can assure you is that we are working assiduously in reducing and cushioning the pain of the sugar workers through economic and social (ventures).”
Present at the event at the Grand Coastal Hotel on the East Coast of Demerara were several sugar workers, representatives of the union, Minister of State, Joseph Harmon and a number of Opposition parliamentarians including Leader of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), Bharrat Jagdeo.
Notably, Agriculture Minister, Noel Holder under whose portfolio GuySuCo and the remaining three estates fall, was not at the event.
Mr Heath-London told those gathered that the Unit is working on a number of projects including the distribution of lands to sugar workers for various ventures, development of two co-generation plants at Albion and Uitvlugt and push value-added products along with seeking investors.
“It is our hope that within the next 18 months, that we can complete the implementation of the two co-generation plants at Albion and Uitvlugt. And it is our hope also that we can start and complete the implementation of value-added sugars. We must understand the marketing side of it. Gone are the days when we in Guyana should be the net producers of raw materials,” the SPU Head said.
During his presentation, Mr Heath-London said he is hoping to present and recommend to Cabinet, investors who are interested in producing sugar or other products.
“We hope that by February next year, we can have one of our investors running one of the estates and all of the other estates in the near distant future will be operational in some form.”
The SPU has placed advertisements for expressions of interest in the estates.
“From what we see and what was sent to us, most of these stakeholders want to produce some sugar related products at those estates except for Wales.” Some investors want to do agro-processing at Skeldon, Rose Hall and Enmore.
The Government in 2016 and 2017 closed the Skeldon, Albion, Rose Hall, Enmore and Wales Sugar Estates in an effort to make the industry more viable.
Mr Heath-London noted that the industry needs to be treated as a striving business and not merely as a Government-owned asset.
Prior to the presentation of the SPU Head, President of GAWU, Komal Chand stated that the sugar industry cannot be looked at from only a financial point of view.
“GAWU contends that we cannot ignore the widely known fact that any examination of the industry cannot be confined to such a narrow outlook. Sugar has transcended mere finance and has become a social institution in our society. Some have argued that this should not be the case but the reality is that its importance stretches beyond a black-and-white notion of profitability,” Chand said.
He argued that the industry has grown beyond a mere source of employment to become centres for the sustenance of entire communities.
Meanwhile, when asked by the media whether the Agriculture Minister was invited to the forum, Chand said that an invitation was extended but Minister indicated that he was unavailable.
The Union’s President also alleged that the Minister warned him against approaching him [Holder] on sugar related issues since that was now under the Ministry of Finance’s privatisation unit.
Opposition Leader criticizes Govt’s restructuring plan
Also addressing the forum was Opposition Leader, Bharrat Jagdeo who lambaste the Government for the manner in which it has restructured the industry.
He said the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) is not opposed to reform and change but it must be grounded on the basis of studies and theoretical work.
Mr Jagdeo was at the time referring to economic impact studies which the PPP demanded prior to the closure of estates.
He also responded to claims made by Minister of State, Joseph Harmon, who in his speech said that the GuySuCo was in major debt when the APNU+AFC Government assumed office.
Mr Jagdeo noted that of the $82B debt claimed by the Government, a significant sum was owed to the Guyana Revenue Authority and also formed part of long-term debts which has a lengthy repayment plan.
The Opposition Leader contended that the Government should have provided more support to sugar workers after closing estates.
“We can find all the money now to help the industry in the current budget, there is no issue with not affording it, there is an issue of political will,” he noted.
However, Minister Harmon was adamant that “Whatever shape and form we [the Government] arrived at, consultation has always been the bedrock of the Government.”
Mr Harmon emphasized that the Opposition was given the opportunity to make suggestions but they “never put anything on the table.”
The Government said it is prepared to pay remaining severance to sugar workers which are due before the end of 2018.