Despite numerous challenges, GAWU says workers’ lives improved in 2021
See full release issued by the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) ahead of the 2022 New Year:
The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) considers 2021 as yet another year where our Union had been able to triumph over many challenges. During the year, our continued efforts bore fruit and our members have benefitted from improvements in their pay and working conditions. We take great pride in such achievements as we enter 2022 imbued with greater confidence. Undoubtedly, our successes could not have been possible without our union members, shop stewards, officers and other activists who collectively played critical roles.
In as much as we celebrate our victories, 2021 also reminded us of the unfairness of life for too many workers. In outreach activities with unorganized workers of our country, we came to better understand the exploitation they confronted, and the heartlessness meted out to them. We saw firsthand the lengths some are willing to go to deny their workers their freedom of association. It is disheartened and simply detestable. As we enter 2022, the GAWU is reinvigorated to continue to heighten the consciousness of our nation’s workers as we seek to expand our fold and offer greater protection to the nation’s working-class.
The Sugar industry
Just a few days ago, the GuySuCo publicly disclosed that sugar production had reached 58,025 tonnes. This year’s output, GuySuCo says was curtailed by the weather and the workers. For those who follow the industry would know that these rationales are by no means new. It is old win in a new bottle. However, we acknowledge the high levels of rainfall during the year would have had an impact. This was most tangibly felt at Albion which was underwater for several weeks. Our Union was advised that several long-standing mitigation measures were not put in place prior to the onset of the rains. It is felt had those measures been pursued the damages sustained could have been reduced. GuySuCo has informed that some 80% of Albion’s first crop 2022 canes have been damaged. Undoubtedly it is a significant dent given the estate’s contribution to the industry. This will definitely restrict 2022’s production though, we believe, with adequate and timely resources, along with a motivated workforce, and a proper plan, Albion could be rehabilitated in a short period.
The GuySuCo also told the nation that the workers were champions, persevering despite adversity. Also in a scatter shot, the Management claimed that workers protests aggregated to some 20,000 mandays resulting in losses of $700M that means each worker contributes $35,000 daily to the Corporation’s coffers. Thus, should each of the 7,500 workers, at the grinding estates, work just 100 days in 2021 then GuySuCo’s revenue would amount to $26.25B. Workers, of course, worked more than 100 days this year. Whereas in terms of revenues, we are aware that revenues have not reached such levels.
The GAWU was heartened to learn that the Corporation has managed to reduce its losses this year. For us, it demonstrates that investments made are bearing fruit. At the same time, in the media, a debate has emerged regarding the effectiveness of the current management. Indeed, what has been revealed is troubling if it is true. It seems to indicate that the management needs to be strengthened. Over the years, we are aware, that the Corporation has lost several skilled personnel and given its trajectory there is an urgent need to fill the gaps. We recognize Government recently indicating that this is on the agenda during the coming year.
As we end 2021, we must place on the record our deep disappointment with those who seek, seemingly at all costs, to criticize support to the sugar industry. We are at a loss that so-called leaders who would wish to take the bread out of the mouths of tens of thousands of Guyanese. To engage in such advocacy is simply appalling in our view. We have recognized that the critics have attempted to cast support to sugar through a divisive lens. It speaks, we contend, to their character and demonstrates that they are not really interested in the well-being of our people. For the GAWU, we hold, that the support to the sugar industry is necessary and appropriate. We have spoken extensively of the industry’s contribution to Guyana’s and Guyanese well-being. Furthermore, we have pointed to its potential. Already, according to GuySuCo, we have begun to see some improvements. We believe with appropriate investments further improvements are within reach.
Socio-economic impact of estate closure
During the year, we learnt, from a socio-economic study that the laid-off workers of Skeldon, Rose Hall, East Demerara and Wales Estates suffered tremendously arising from estate closure. The report produced by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) confirmed the former workers and their families regressed tremendously. We learnt that incomes fell by 64% after closure and 81% of those laid-off could not find permanent jobs. The report indicated that suicide had doubled, crime and alcohol abuse rose significantly, and workers held a dismal outlook for the future. The report concluded that the estates were center of the communities and life revolved around their functioning. With closure entire communities became depressed and faced tremendous reversals.
Our Union, prior to the closures, had warned of exactly what the ILO found. It is not something we take any amount of pride in but it is a reminder of the hardships that were perpetuated on ordinary Guyanese. We believe that the present Government paid close attention to the study which no doubt added influence to its decision to provide support to the laid-off workers. The GAWU is aware of the efforts of the Administration to promote initiatives that would bring employment and vibrancy back to the communities. From recent comments emanating from senior Government officials these opportunities will involve a mixture of sugar and non-sugar activities to bring back the lost pride to workers who were made jobless by the Coalition regime. This we believe is laudable given the hardships the workers, their families and their communities endured.
Sugar workers’ pay increase
As we end 2021, the GAWU is heartened that sugar workers after several years have finally been able to benefit from a pay rise. It ended the discrimination meted out to them when they were made to suffer the indignity of a wage freeze, while their colleagues in other sectors of the State received pay rises annually. Undoubtedly, it was a trying time for the workers as they and their families suffered tremendous hardship and adversity. It also demonstrated the spitefulness and heartlessness of the former Government as they simply ignored the plight of the workers who endured steady declines in their standard-of-living.
Non sugar entities
During the year, we also managed to secure improvements for union members at several other entities where we enjoy bargaining rights. At the Demerara Distillers Limited (DDL), the GAWU jointly with the Guyana Labour Union (GLU) and the Clerical and Commercial Workers Union (CCWU) inked a five (5) year agreement that will see workers benefitting from improvements in their pay scales as well as pay hikes. Apart from pay, those negotiations will see workers benefitting from other enhanced working-conditions. At the Berbice Bridge Company Inc (BBCI), we recently signed an agreement which through adjustments in pay and salary scales will see workers receiving between 5% and 27% pay hikes retroactive to January 01, 2021. At the Demerara Harbour Bridge Corporation (DHBC), apart from pay increases, workers, through union negotiations, are enjoying increased meal allowances and the introduction of night premium for maintenance employees. At the Sugar Industry Labour Welfare Fund (SILWFC), employees there benefitted from an 8% pay hike for 2020 and 2021 apart from improved benefits. At several other bargaining units, we have managed to secure other improvements apart from pay.
Through our efforts, we have also ensured that our members rights were safeguarded. At the Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC), through our representation, some workers who were terminated received severance payments arising from the union’s representation. In other bargaining units, several matters were successfully represented at the bilateral level. In some other instances and with the assistance of the Ministry of Labour, the Union had been able to ensure that agreements were respected, the laws adhered to, and principles of natural justice upheld. Another milestone was the resumption of bilateral discussions with the foreign-owned Demerara Timbers Limited (DTL) which for several years had been refusing to engage our Union. Following our representation to Minister of Labour Honourable Joseph Hamilton, the company was engaged by the Ministry of Labour paving the way for the resumption of bilateral engagements. Since the resumption of discussions, the Union and the Company were able to address a few matters whereas engagements are continuing on a few others. For us and other members these are significant achievements to ensure that they are protected at work.
We are indeed proud to share that during 2021, the GAWU has been able to expand its reach. In 2021, we have become the bargaining agent on behalf of the workers employed by the Skeldon Energy Inc (SEI), the Guyana Gold Board (GGB), the Burma Rice Research Station, and the Distribution Services Warehouse (DSL) warehouse at Diamond. In every instance, the Union has already in place Recognition and the Avoidance and Settlement of Disputes Agreements with the named entities. Currently, we are working on addressing regarding the former two agreements with respect of conditions-of-work. Expectedly, in a matter of days, the Union will receive a Certificate of Recognition for another entity while the Trade Union Recognition and Certification Board is addressing another application from GAWU. Heading into the New Year
During the year, our Union approved the establishment of and Oil and Gas Branch. Since its establishment a few months ago, the Union has been approached by workers from several enterprises in the sector. During our interactions, we have learnt that some workers are being paid at the national minimum wages with their incomes augmented by allowances that can be withdrawn at a moment’s notice. In other instances, workers benefit from no overtime payments and are being denied their right to unionization. Through our fraternal relations with the Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU) of Trinidad and Tobago we shockingly learnt that Guyanese workers received 10 times lesser pay than their colleagues in the neighbouring twin-island republic. Apart from several other important benefits are simply absent from our local landscape. It is apt to point out that GAWU has obtained similar benefits among the workplaces we enjoy bargaining status.
A worrying trend in the sector regards the utilization of foreign labour. Workers have informed us that labour is being imported to function as drivers, mechanics, and other allied skills. At one firm we learnt even the office assistant was a foreign national. This is an affront to our Guyanese brothers and sisters who must benefit from our natural wealth. Apart from the taking the jobs of locals, the foreigners, we understand, are receiving conditions-of-employment that are superior to locals. This is patently discriminatory, and we consider disrespectful to Guyanese. Additionally, foreign workers are reportedly benefitting from housing, subsistence, and other allowances while our Guyanese brothers and sisters receive nothing of the sort. Worse yet it appears that many of the foreigners engaged have not received permission to work in Guyana yet are allowed employment without even paying income taxes to the State. We are unaware of whether immigration officials are aware of such developments though locals shared with us that, it appeared, these companies operate with impunity and no fear of repercussion.
Currently, we are aware that Government is seeking to address such occurrences through the enactment of local content legislation. The GAWU welcomes this development and believes it can seek to address some of the issues workers in the sector confront. We contend that for the legislation to have true meaning it must be enforced and its schedules renewed regularly to ensure increased Guyanese participation in the sector. In the coming year, the GAWU is hopeful, with the assistance of our unions in the sector abroad, to continue our work among the oil workers.
Strengthening our democracy
At the national level, as a people we continue to face several challenges. Indeed, there is urgent need to strengthen our democracy and to ensure robust systems and institutions are developed to prevent abuse or exploitation. We note efforts to amend some elements of our electoral legislation and we have learnt further changes are imminent.
Balancing development and the environment
The protection of our environment is another issue that has attracted focused attention. Several views have emerged in respect to the safeguarding of our environment in the context of our developmental thrust. The debate is certainly not new but is necessary given the collective aspirations of our people for improved standard-of-living. The GAWU believes that no effort should be spared to protect our environment more so given the onset of climate change and ecological degradation. Indeed, our world is replete of examples of development and the environment coexisting and these provide useful lessons in our own development ambitions. It is incumbent that we seek out the best guidance on these matters to ensure that we protect our environment while advancing development in a sustainable manner.
Maximizing our natural resources in the interest of our people
The maximization of our natural wealth in the interest of Guyanese is another important issue of our times. Our Union, for several years, has drawn attention to this important issue as we are of the firm view that our resources are our nation’s patrimony, and all Guyanese must benefit. Indeed, these concerns have sharpened with the discovery of oil. The GAWU had previously expressed the belief that the oil agreement inked during the time of the previous Administration has cheated Guyanese substantially. We noticed too calls for renegotiation which we are aware have been pursued by several countries. Such calls undoubtedly have merit in view of the lopsided agreement signed. For its part, we recognize the incumbent Government’s position of contract sanctity. As a Union that negotiates agreements with employers, we are keenly aware of the need for parties to respect commitments. Indeed, renegotiation could be a tricky exercise and one if pursued must be carefully thought out bearing in mind the profit-maximization desires of the operators.
The abhorrent conduct of the Opposition on the NRF Bill debate
In recent days there has been significant debate concerning the Natural Resources Fund Bill which was approved in the National Assembly on December 29, 2021. Indeed, with an eye on the future our Union sees the Bill as important to our longer-term development aspirations as a nation. We noted that several of the concerns raised have been addressed and there is a commitment by the Government to ensure that the fund benefits from skilled direction, operates transparently and with the fullest scrutiny. These are reassuring measures and we look forward to their implementation. On this score, we cannot ignore the bedlam that engulfed the National Assembly during the debate of the Bill. We hold the conduct of the Opposition as embarrassing to our country and clearly juvenile. The GAWU upholds their right to express differing views, however, there behaviour cannot be condoned.
The increase in the cost-of-living
The jump in the cost-of-living is an issue that continues to attract significant attention of the working-class. The increases are linked ostensibly to the global shipping crisis which according to most recent reports will continue into 2022. The GAWU has recognized the efforts of the Government to bring reprieve to our people through adjustments to taxation measures. While undoubtedly good-intentioned, the measures were not impactful as contemplated. Many workers have indicated to us that businesses did not pass on the savings brought about by lower taxes. Indeed, given that prices have largely remained the same or have gone up such views are hard to discount. We even recently recognised President Irfaan Ali sharing similar views. Whatever is the reality, it appears, that similar or even higher prices will continue for the foreseeable future and there is an urgent need to develop innovative measures to bring relief to workers and their families. Such efforts, we believe, require a collaborative approach involving workers and business organisations and the Government.
The National Minimum Wage
As we end 2021, the GAWU must lament that the national minimum wage remains at $44,200 monthly. However, it appears, there is some glimmer of hope as the main business organisation has indicated its support for the increase. Indeed, we are aware that many workers continue to receive the low level of wages including in the oil and gas sector. Though we welcome the support of the business sector, we have learnt recently that some businesses have expressed their disagreement with the move. It is saddening that some businesses are seeking to continue to pay their employees at the basement level. Given the rising cost-of-living, undoubtedly those businesses are, from all appearances, seeking to push their employees into poverty.
Pay rises to public sector workers and other benefits
Over the last few weeks there has been several concerns in respect of pay rise to employees of the State. Some have contended that the improvement should be greater. This is difficult to argue as our nation’s workers deserve more if we are to close inequality within our society. At the same time, we recognize several measures were implemented by the State to put monies into the hands of our workers. Indeed, in assessing the situation, a holistic perspective must be taken. At this time, given the situation, we expect similar measures to be pursued in the coming year. We also look forward to additional and more profound measures as we look to improvements in the income tax threshold, a progressive income tax rate, further support to our poor and disadvantaged, greater protection of our elderly, and other initiatives which would improve disposable income.
As we end 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic continues and with the emergence of the Omicron variant could foreshadow greater number of infections. When considering what is taking place within the regional and international orbit, our situation is somewhat better, This, however, should not lull us into letting our guard down. Indeed, we believe, our inoculation programme has allowed us to avoid the worse of the pandemic. At the same time, we contend, too many lives have been lost and many could have been saved had they obtained available vaccines. As we enter 2022, we encourage all Guyanese to obtain their vaccines including booster shots which health officials have told us are necessary at this time.
2021 was indeed a standout year. It is a year that we will remember for so many reasons and it is a year that we will look back with fondness. As the curtains draw to a close, we take enormous pride in our victories as we remain focused on our challenges. Importantly, the year has demonstrated once again the resilience of mankind. It has shown that in the face of adversity we can overcome and emerge stronger. It causes us to be imbued to go forward stronger, committed and optimistic that though intrigues will always be formed against us we will roundly defeat them.
The year demonstrated the correctness of our positions and showed that despite adversity and difficulty we can succeed to realizing our reasonable objectives. The year also brought reminded us of the difficulty of a jobless life and the heartbreak and sorrow it brings. Indeed, the year was momentous on several fronts but it ends on a positive note.
As past generations of workers have shown us we can overcome challenges and win out if our demands and struggles are just. This is their abiding lesson to us. This enduring message we should not forget. The working people must be always vigilant, militant, organizationally strong and united, and must always raise the banner of solidarity.
As we now enter a new year, we are hopeful that the trials and tribulations we faced can be erased. We are hopeful that injustices perpetuated can be righted. And, we are hopeful that a better tomorrow will dawn.
Finally, at this time, we take this opportunity to extend best wishes for the New Year. May 2022 bring you all joy, happiness, and prosperity.