Suicide, crime, alcohol consumption increased after closure of sugar estates – ILO study
By Vishani Ragobeer
A study by the United Nations’ International Labour Organization (UN ILO) has pointed to an increase in suicide, crime, and alcohol consumption after the closure of four sugar estates by the former APNU+AFC Government; the current government says the data in the report will help chart the way forward as it manages the reopening of the estates.
Between 2016 to 2017, the sugar estates at Wales, Enmore, Rose Hall and Skeldon were closed due to the poor performance of the sugar industry. During that period, a total of 5,160 workers of the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) were laid off; they were cane-cutters, field workers and factory workers.
A study on the socio-economic impact of the closure of the estates was undertaken and on Thursday, during a Zoom meeting, that study was officially launched.
Though the closure of the estates, reportedly, stemmed from economic consideration, the study found that there were wider implications of this shutdown on the lives and livelihoods of the workers, their families and the communities at large.
“Entire communities were sent into depression because of the sheer dominance of sugar estates for income, employment, business prospects, aspirations of families,” local economist and author of the study, Dr. Thomas Singh said, as he presented key findings.
As part of this study, it was explained that focus group interviews were conducted with 41 workers who were laid off from the closed estates and it was found that their livelihoods were severely compromised; just one person said she was not impacted.
According to the report, weekly household incomes fell by 64 per cent, from an average of $32,238 to $18,450 after the closures.
Additionally, when the study was conducted – some two years after the closure of the estates – a number of workers were still unemployed. And, the study reported that among those who found new jobs, new skills had to be learnt at their cost though starting over was made easier by the severance they received.
The average severance was about $838,177, as per this study.
Importantly, Dr. Singh also stated, “Career aspirations of children were shattered; suicide, alcohol consumption and crime increased in each affected community. And, as mentioned before, incomes fell significantly. Livelihoods were not sustainable after the closures.
NATIONAL INVESTMENT AND DIVERSIFICATION STRATEGY
The study made several recommendations that would help to address the socio-economic impact felt by thousands of people and, for the government to consider as it forges ahead with its intentions to reopen the estates and revitalise the sugar industry.
One recommendation is the creation of a national investment and diversification strategy for Guyana that could help to diversify the economy in ways that would counterbalance the price volatility that characterises commodity markets such as the sugar and oil industries.
Through coordinated and complementary large-scale investments in many sectors simultaneously, the economist posited that foreign demand for products could be tapped into leading to an increase in the size of the markets and, subsequently, the growth and development of the local economy.
Specifically, investments in cellulosic ethanol using sugar cane and other forms of biomass could also help to increase the profitability of the sugar industry, Dr. Singh reported too.
Meanwhile, Senior Minister within the Office of the President with responsibility for Finance, Dr. Ashni Singh, noted that this report would provide significant “food for thought” as the government aims to revitalise the sugar industry.
Moving forward, he said this “extremely rich set of data and the comprehensive analysis” of the report would help to inform government policy, in a bid to curtail future hardships of thousands of workers and their dependents.
The Senior Minister also assured members of the public that the government is cognisant of the integral link between sugar estates and the communities they are located in, emphasising that the sugar industry is ingrained in the fabric of the Guyanese economy.
In accordance with some of the recommendations made by the report, the Finance Minister highlighted that the government will be working towards producing more value-added products and an optimised product mix from the sugar estates, to return the industry to profitability.
According to him, the government will ensure that careful investments are made.
Additionally, President of the Guyana Agricultural and Workers Union (GAWU), Seepaul Narine said that it is the union’s hope that policymakers consider the report’s recommendations to ensure that the livelihoods of the workers are maintained.