The struggle for unity

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-Labour relations in Guyana
WORKERS in Guyana are today celebrating yet another Labour Day.

As usual, there will be a May Day workers Parade and Rally. As we embark on this special day, we should not forget from where we came.
In the early twentieth century, workers began to display their dissatisfaction with the terrible conditions under which they were forced to work on the waterfront. This, according to Samuel J. Goolsarran in his book, ‘The System of Industrial Relations in Guyana’ , developed into an agitated workforce, and resulted in strike action in December of 1905, for better terms and conditions of employment.

Soon after, the British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU) was formed. This body was led by the father of trade unionism in Guyana, Hubert Nathaniel Crichlow in 1919. The Trade Union Ordinance (Trade Union Act) was later brought into law in 1921. This Act allowed the BGLU to be registered as Guyana’s first trade union.
As we reflect on our past, it is time for all unions to find common ground and band together. It is time to unite labour in Guyana. With a unionized workforce of approximately 50,000 and a total workforce of  200,000, the time has come for all unions to do what they have been created for; to reach, educate and enroll all workers. This would ensure that the workers can influence the course of political and economic development in Guyana.  There is lots of work to be done by the labour movement.
In 1988, the first major crack appeared in the labour movement. Unhappy with the way the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) was being run, several unions broke away from this umbrella body. This was how the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG) was born.
Since then, there has been some engagement, and long periods of non-engagement between these two major labour movements in Guyana, in order to bring about unity. To date, unification remains a fleeting illusion, much to the detriment of the working force.
With the challenges of globalization, a faltering sugar sector, a sick bauxite industry, increasing unemployment and de-recognition of unions, all trade unions have their work cut out for them. The only way forward is to prove to workers that they have purpose, and most importantly, that they are relevant.
The present labour leaders stand on the shoulders of giants who helped to form and shape the trade union movement, so that it became powerful and respected by all. These icons were persons like Hubert Nathaniel Crichlow, Basil Blair, Egbert Bolton, John Langry, J.H. Pollydore, Leslie Melville, Selwyn Felix, Vivienne Surrey, N.E Semple, Kenneth Denny, Bertis Bangaree, Stanton Crichlow, Samuel Walker, T. Anson Sancho, Seelo Baichan,  Gordon Todd, Edun Pollydore, Ashton Chase, B.B. Blackman, Andrew Jackson, J.A. Agard, Winston Verbeke, R.A. Ishmael, Cecil Cambridge, George De Peana and many others.
In order to maintain the rich legacy of the labour movement passed down to its present leaders, genuine efforts on both sides ought to be made to ensure unity. One area of disagreement between the two parties is the method used to select leaders of the GTUC.
Ordinary workers see the trade unions in different ways. All of the workers I interviewed were reluctant to be identified.

Worker 1
This worker has been employed for over forty-five years. Across the years, he has seen the labour movement grow since the time of Hubert Nathaniel Crichlow. He feels that without labour, we would have been worse off today. “Through the labour movement, we’ve derived two grassroots leaders: Cheddi  Jagan and Forbes Burnham. Both were able to feel the pulse of the labour force and respond appropriately. Other Caribbean Islands saw the benefits of this movement and followed suit.”
He is happy that through these men, laws were instituted and the rights of workers were enshrined in our constitution. “Today, workers do not always receive the full benefits of the law. The development of any country depends on the workers, so they should be recognized, respected and trained to meet the developmental needs of Guyana.” He feels that without meaningful dialogue between a united labour movement and the national administration, there would be no future for workers.

Workers 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 &7
All these workers work for the same employer, and have lost faith in the union that should be representing them. They complain that many benefits are not received, and are actually ignored by their employer. When these breaches are brought to the attention of the union, nothing is done. One worker, who is senior to the others, both in age and rank, declared: “Workers suck blows in Guyana today. Prices going up and yuh money staying one place. Poor man always getting it rough!”
The group listed a number of grievances that have not been addressed by their union.
(1)    No fixed payday. They are paid whenever the employer is ready. This often means waiting until the following month.
(2)    Pension Schemes and Severance Pay are two sore issues. When a worker’s service is severed, the employee only pays severance pay and no pension money, although the worker has been contributing for years.
(3)    Employees get six months notice of severance, yet at the time of leaving, no payment is received. They have to suffer a waiting period of  between six months to two years.
(4)    NIS contributions is a serious problem for them. Contributions are deducted every month, but when checks are made at the NIS, many have not been paid in by the employer.
(5)    Workers Credit Union Scheme is being abused. Workers make contributions but don’t get benefits.
(6)    Leave entitlement is another issue of dissatisfaction. 14 days sick leave is allotted to each worker. Despite different circumstances for each worker, all have to take their leave in the following fashion: 5 times per year only. 4 times x three days and 1 time x 2 days = 14 days. If you happen to fall sick for only one day at a time too bad. If you take 5 times 1 day = 5 days, your leave is over. 9 days are forfeit.

Worker 8
This woman has been employed for more than three decades. She has had experience in union activities, but has become disillusioned by what she has encountered. She remarked, “As far as I am concerned, union leaders are only interested in themselves. They are quick to respond to engagements that mean foreign travel etc. Quite often, there are many issues awaiting their attention, but these not priority to them.”
She feels that many workers who are contributing to unions, via dues deducted from their salaries, have lost faith and interest in unions. They don’t even attend meetings, and never respond to notices. “I know endless people like that. They don’t care anymore. Things so rough they only studying to survive. Unions are not on their radar.” She feels that unions   should offer good leadership to workers. They should improve workers standard of living , make sure they are paid  good wages, fight for their rights and assist them in times of need.
Guyana has been part of the International Labour Organization (ILO) since 1966, and has ratified more than 40 conventions, ranging from Recruitment of Indigenous Workers, to Worse Forms of Child labour. These have helped to shape Guyana’s Labour code. Our ties with CARICOM  also pushes us to accept other labour policies agreed on by our leaders.
The Labour department of the Ministry of Labour, according to Goolsarran in his book, is expected to supply “labour administration services to workers, trade unions, employers and their organizations.”
The industrial relations atmosphere in Guyana is tense, and often confrontational. There is need for urgent and sincere discourse by a united labour movement, employers and the national administration in order for workers to feel comfortable, empowered and energized enough to fulfill Guyana’s enormous potential.