By Kurt Campbell
Seven years after its last meeting, Guyana’s largest trade union body on Wednesday hosted hundreds of its members at the Arthur Chung Conference Centre in Georgetown for its 22nd Delegates Congress.
Scores of working-class citizens, many employed in the agricultural sector on sugar estates, arrived in large trucks to review the work of the union since its last congress in 2016 while also considering local and international developments.
But as the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) deliberates for the next two days on “Advancing Workers’ Rights, Economic Progress and Social Justice,” a new topic was placed on the table.
It addresses the union’s ability to remain relevant and competitive in the changing digital environment of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.
It was President Dr. Irfaan Ali who used the occasion to challenge trade union bodies in Guyana and the wider Caribbean to spend time to address these rapid technological changes that are being foisted on the workforce across the world.
“AI, the digital economy and robotics, are upon us and we are seeing what this new reality can do and how it is rapidly changing things.
“Can we remain competitive without adjusting or even relevant in this new world?” the President quizzed.
“Can we?” he asked the gathering again as he paused for an answer.
He said discussions must be held on how the trade union movement will function in this new environment.
“This is the real world and that is why this congress is important. We have to examine the reality of what we are faced with.
“No theoretical underpinning, just an examination of the reality of the environment in which you are working, the reality of what your country faces is what is important,” the Head of State said.
The President fears that failure to address the changes now will lead to more inequality between countries and workforces. And in this regard, he insisted that the necessary adaption must commence now.
“This is where the leadership of trade unions has to step up and advance work in these areas to avoid monumental change and consequences for workers in the future,” Dr. Ali added.
To match the advancement of AI with the development of the workforce, Dr. Ali reminded of an agreement signed between Guyana and the UAE to train 150,000 children in coding.
“The children of workers will not be at a disadvantage in this new world. We are building smart classrooms, we are teaching digitization now so that the children coming up will not be placed at a comparative disadvantage,” Dr. Ali noted.
But even with this challenge on the table, Dr. Ali has committed to ensuring that he and his government engage with workers directly.
This is said will be done while ensuring the sustained respect for the trade union movement as he urged trust among workers.
“No side-stepping unions but workers will hear directly from me and I will engage workers.”
He said the government will heed its responsibility but he also called on workers to understand their responsibility and remain aware of the ever-changing reality.
Following the opening ceremony, the congress will shift to the business sessions where these issues are expected to be further addressed.
The business session will also see some 20 motions being moved and debated. The proposed motions address several important and relevant issues and are sure to attract some level of discussion.