GAWU addresses sugar industry, crime, road fatalities in Labour Day message

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GAWU Labour Day address 2021

By Seepaul Narine, President

Comrades, I greet you on behalf of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) as we, once again, observe Labour Day. We begin by extending fraternal greetings to all workers as we recognize our advancements cannot be delinked from the efforts of our working-class. We hold that workers are the fulcrum of development and their efforts should not be underscored.

This red-letter day of the working-class was birthed in the struggle of Chicago of 1886 when thousands of workers marched calling for an eight-hour workday. For their justifiable struggle, those workers faced police brutality, hails of bullets, and even the gallows for their main leaders.

The harshness steeled the workers into further action that realized the call of Chicago 1886. That struggle left an indelible mark and led to workers leaders in 1887 resolving that May 1st be deemed International Workers Day.

In Guyana, Labour Day celebrations begun during the 1930s under the leadership of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow and his British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU), and in 1958, May 1st was declared a National Holiday by then Minister of Labour, Janet Jagan. Since that time, workers in Guyana have celebrated this day with marches through the streets of Georgetown and elsewhere, along with rallies addressed mainly by union leaders and others.

Those usual celebrations are this year, like last year, constrained as Guyana and the world contend with the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, the pandemic has had an enormous toll. Here in Guyana, some 11,000 persons have been infected, and nearly 300 persons have lost their battles. The troubling statistics should be a wake-up call to us all. Though we recognize many Guyanese have adhered to the COVID-19 protocols and received their vaccinations, there are some Guyanese who continue to put themselves and others at risk.

We have seen the immense toll the pandemic has taken and we all must play our role. On this Labour Day, the GAWU again, encourages all eligible Guyanese to be vaccinated. We take this opportunity to hail the contribution of our frontline workers, particularly those in the health field.

Local situation

We recognize too several issues that continue to affect our well-being and require our unstinted attention. Crime remains a perennial issue that affects many persons in its several manifestations. Most worryingly are the extreme ends criminal elements have descended as they perpetrate their nefarious deeds. Indeed, our law enforcement officials need to be more proactive and there is a need for a comprehensive plan to be developed to meaningfully address the scourge in our society.

We remain concerned too over the recklessness on our roadways and road fatalities in our country. Undoubtedly, to some extent, these occurrences are linked to the irresponsibility of our road users. Many concerns have been levelled at public transport operators. Indeed, admittedly they are some who, it appears, have scant regard for the rules and lives.

The wanton danger those careless few put passengers and others cannot be ignored. Similarly, their contempt for the travelling public must not be overlooked. It is certainly time for stronger actions to be taken against all road users who threaten the lives of others. We cannot afford to lose more of our people in this way.

On this Labour Day too, we are disturbed by the efforts of those who seek to drive a wedge between our people. This is an unwelcome development that is not in the interest of our people and our country. We have recognised that His Excellency President Irfaan Ali has committed to ensuring all Guyanese equally enjoy the fruits of development. The President has rightly proclaimed we are ‘One Guyana’. We share his views and condemn those who are perpetuating divisiveness in our society. They have no interest in national development and should be ignored by all right-thinking Guyanese.

Comrades the burdensome cost-of-living brought about by onerous taxes imposed by the past Government was an issue that dominated previous Labour Day observances. Though those policies elicited the vexations of workers who undoubtedly faced hardship, the former Coalition, heartlessly, thumbed their noses.

On this Labour Day we recognize that the new Government is listening and has rolled back several of the anti-people measures installed by the Coalition. We are told that the reversal has put some $40B back into the pockets of our people. While we recognize the efforts to bring relief to our workers, they are some unscrupulous businesses that are not passing those savings on to our people. Their actions are detestable as they rob our ordinary people. We believe this matter requires firm action from the Government and those businesses engaged in such immoral acts should be identified.

We on this Labour Day welcome as well the restoration and improvement of the school child grant, the reinstitution of the water subsidy to pensioners, the reduction in water tariffs, the increase of the school uniform grant, old-aged pensions, and public assistance. These measures directly impact our workers, the needy, and the pensioners who had to contend with a great deal of hardships while being promised a ‘Good Life’. We see these are first steps and expect the Government over the coming years to enhance the support provided as it focuses on minimizing and later eradicating the bane of impoverishment. We hold such expectations are reasonable as we are told of the steady expansion of our economy and the greater prosperity that would accrue.

We saw the re-establishment of the Ministry of Labour as another victory for the working-class. Its downgrade by the Granger Administration was a slap in the face of the workers. There is urgent need for the re-established Ministry to arrest the exploitative practices many workers endure.

It must ensure that the workers’ rights are upheld and errant employers face consequences for their actions. Another pressing issue regards the improvement of the national minimum wage which remains stuck at the insistence of employers. The pretext of COVID-19 has been deployed to deny our workers the long-overdue adjustment. This is a matter that we believe requires urgent attention.

Comrades, a major event since last Labour Day was the defeat of the attempted thievery of the 2020 National and Regional elections. Indeed had those who perpetuated the ploy succeeded, we faced the distinct possibility of seeing all our advances reversed and starker hardships returning. While we take solace in the precipice avoided, we are disappointed that many of the architects remain unscathed.

The entire episode was a horrid situation and one that we should not condemn present and future generations of Guyanese to ever again. Clearly, there is an urgent need for appropriate reforms as our people must repose confidence in our democratic system. We reiterate our call on this Labour Day for a properly constituted Commission of Inquiry to be established to investigate and record what was one of the most disturbing periods in our young independent nation’s history.

Sugar industry

Comrades, turning to sugar, which employs many Guyanese, we are pleased with the efforts to reinvigorate the industry. Today the depression that gripped the industry is dissipating and as we speak, serious efforts are being made to breathe new life into the industry and restore it back to a position of prominence. For the tens of thousands who depend on the industry, this is welcome news, especially for the many who were affected when estates were callously closed without any regard to the socio-economic upheaval that would emerge.

We have learnt that the industry is seeking to reposition itself to produce higher-priced packaged and bagged sugar. This is a position long advanced by GAWU but was ignored by the former Government. We repeat that the industry has several possibilities for success, and we noticed that such avenues are examined through possible partnerships.

This too is long overdue but goes to demonstrate, in our view, that the Coalition never really sought to protect the industry. In its revitalization thrust, the new Government has provided support to recapitalize the industry. Such support is necessary to nurture the industry back to its feet. We welcome this investment and believe if properly utilised it could have a meaningful impact. The GAWU holds too that there is need for appropriate investment in the workforce as well. A motivated workforce is key to the industry’s success and the role of the workers should not be ignored.

Oil sector

Comrades on this Labour Day, we are told that our country is poised for takeoff as our stature as an oil-producing nation grows. Indeed, the sector has the potential to bring our dreams into reality and propel us to unbelievable heights. At the same time, we cannot ignore the pitfalls that have faced other producers as well. We must be careful to strike a balance and to ensure foremostly that our people benefit now and in the future. It is in this regard that we cannot ignore the employment practices of some companies in the sector. From what we have seen, we believe, our workers have been being shortchanged and there is an urgent need to address the several gaps.

There is also a need to ensure that we get a bigger slice of the pie from the sector. We recognise that the new Government has committed itself to addressing several of the shortcomings identified in future agreements.

We noticed too significant debate regarding the gas-to-shore project which has transformative possibilities. On this matter, previous studies have attested to the potential benefits, but we hold that all relevant studies should be pursued. We must ensure that next generations of Guyanese can indeed harness the potential benefits.

International Situation

Comrades, Labour Day is, as we know, a day when we raise high the banner of solidarity of the international working-class. We are part of this world movement. As generations of workers before us have done in our country, the working-class of the world have also written, selflessly, glorious, and inspiring chapters of struggles that impacted positively on our lives and influenced profound socio-economic change in their respective societies.

In our day, we are witnessing new challenges levelled at those who historically thrived on wars, conflicts, oppression, and exploitation. These ruling forces and their agencies and their puppets, despite their use of new methods and intrigues against the peoples, are unable to suppress their reinvigorated struggles erupting on all continents or to still the peoples’ voices that demand an end to injustice, and are calling for World Peace, deepening of democracy, end to poverty, respect for countries sovereignty and consistent and focused efforts to address climate change which is reaching a critical level.

We express, in the strongest terms, our sincerest solidarity to all peoples, especially the working-class who are engaged, in one way or another, in this fight today for these causes. We hasten to add that while we support these struggles, we must also do our share to bring about an order that places people before profits and a world order based on peace, humane relations, and steady progress.

Conclusion

Comrades, on this Labour Day 2021, as workers let us recognize that we need to be more assertive in demanding our rights and insist that we be involved in the decision-making processes that impact our lives. We must speak up and speak out for democracy and justice.

Today’s conditions do not call for complacency but for greater activism. The spirit of Chicago, 1886, as well as our own rich legacy should serve to inspire us today. Let us remember these insightful words to the world’s workers: “Workers, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains; you have a world to win”.

Labour Day greetings to all working-people indeed, all citizens of Guyana!

Long live Proletarian Internationalism!

Long live Labour Day 2021!

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