“AS long as the economy increases, as long as our country continues to grow, I can promise you that we will increase the minimum wage .” This is the assurance of Head of State, Donald Ramotar, to workers on May Day, as many of them gathered at the National Park for the Labour Day Rally 2015 after marching in solidarity under the theme, “Unite for continued Progress and Development.”
At present, Guyana’s minimum wage is $202 per hour, $1616 per day, $8080 per week and $35,000 per month. This minimum wage came into effect in July 2013, and applies to workers across the board in both the public and private sectors. Thousands of workers, including domestic workers and security guards, benefitted from this minimum wage. Government has moved Guyana’s economic status from a highly indebted poor country to a low middle income country and, “we are working towards developed status and taking the leading position in the Caribbean…now is the time for you [workers] to give us your solidarity so that we can take our country forward and make it one of the best countries in the world.”
The President noted that his Government has always been pro-people and consistent increases in wages and salaries and several non-salaried benefits are some of the ways in which it has addressed workers’ welfare.
“The PPP/C Government is a working class Government, and from the very inception, we have worked to improve the conditions of the working people of our country. We have brought more legislation that has served to strengthen workers’ rights and offer protection to our working people,” he said.
Guyana is signatory to more International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions than any other Caribbean country.
Expressing Government’s concerns about workers’ quality of life, the Head of State said, “Every year the minimum increase Cabinet gave was five per cent even when our economy grew by four and a half per cent, so that as our economy grows you too can benefit from the development, and we have managed to keep down the inflation rate. In 2013, our inflation rate was the lowest in post-independent Guyana.” This, he said, ensures that the value of wages and salary remains real.
“We have also expanded the tax threshold to allow you to keep more money in your pockets. When we came to office, it was only $6000 a month, $72,000 a year. Today it’s $50,000 a month. That will allow you to have a far greater amount of money; or, as the economists say, disposable income .”
Other initiatives to relieve workers of hardships include highly subsidised social services. “We have delivered heavily on non-wage benefits,” the President said. He added that Government provides children in the public school system with free text and exercise books, school uniforms, transportation, meals and accommodation in some cases, and more recently, a $10,000 cash grant for each child.
“We are now able to provide better health services free of cost to people of our country. We have been able to take that expense from you as well, so that you will have more money in your pocket,” he said.
Each houselot given to people is also heavily subsidised, and government has given persons a chance to own their homes and stop squatting. This he said, “allows people to live in dignity. We also improved your old age pensions which is non-contributory, which was $300 per month and you had to go through a means test. Today, it’s $13,200 a month, and your only qualification is if you meet the age of 65.”
He said government will continue this path in the interest of workers, but it is necessary to build the economy to create more jobs and support social services. In this context, the President noted that cheaper electricity is essential and Government is pursuing this through the Amaila Falls Hydro-Electric project, which “will not only provide cheap energy, but many jobs. When we win the elections, I want to promise you that we will bring the Amaila Falls project to fruition.” He noted that this project could see Guyana becoming an industrial manufacturing country, “and we will be able to create thousands more jobs.”
The President also assured rice and sugar workers of Government’s commitment to ensure the viability and profitability of the industries to secure their jobs. “Sugar needs to re-organise and government must transform the industry…We have already committed ourselves that we will spend a minimum of $20B,” the President said. He added that his Government has no intention of privatising the industry, but is depending on workers to produce more effectively. He disclosed that Government is “working to have new revenue streams for the industry” including producing ethanol.
He also told workers that the prospects for jobs in the mining industry are high, as “very soon two new gold mines will start operating that will employ hundreds of persons.”
According to President Ramotar, “We are very optimistic that very soon our country will join that elite group of countries to be an oil and gas producer,” adding that currently Government is looking at new areas with the potential for job creation, including new ventures in tourism.
The rally hosted under the umbrella union, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG), saw participation from workers attached to NAACIE, GAWU and GLU.
Former President of the GTUC, Ms. Gillian Burton, called on all the Unions to unite and urged women to speak up and call for unity.
“The time has come to put aside differences and be united,” she said.
According to President of GAWU and the first Vice President of FITUG, Komal Chand, “Most regrettably, another May Day is here and despite the contributions of two prominent Caribbean Trade Unionists, we have still not achieved Trade Union unity. We in the FITUG see the need for a strong militant trade union movement,” he said, adding that FITUG is looking at a model from
Trinidad to pursue a united course. He said it was unity that resulted in the observance of Labour Day, which was started in 1889, even though the high point of workers’ struggle was in 1886 in Chicago, where striking workers were met with lawmen’s violence. They were convicted during trials and eight of them later executed. He also noted that this Labour Day offers an opportunity to reflect on workers’ struggles throughout history and to be vigilant against forces and governments of today that do not esteem workers’ welfare and who neglect the provision of social services for working class people. Speaking about Guyana, he noted that following the 2011 elections, the “smooth flow of governance was clearly affected,” as development projects were either stalled or stopped in the National Assembly and “hundreds of jobs denied” because of budget cuts. As the pending elections near, Chand said the union is “looking forward to pro -working and people’s policies from the elected Government.”
GAWU is primarily a sugar workers’ union, and he noted that about 120,000 people are dependent on the industry, which generates about $30 billion in revenue annually. He said that GAWU’s view is that efficient management is key to the industry’s success, as well as production of value-added products through a refinery, distillery and co-generation.
Addressing the workers, President of FITUG and Guyana’s first Trade Union, the Guyana Labour Union, Carvil Duncan, said that this is a crucial May Day, that offers an opportunity to examine the past, plan for the future and reminisce on mistakes. “What makes this May Day different? This May Day falls 10 days before national and regional elections because we the workers are called upon to make some crucial decisions…this May Day is an important May Day, it is a May Day when the workers would have to start examining what are the options before them. Are we satisfied with our achievements? Are we saying to ourselves that better ought to have been done? I will say to you now that from 1992 to 2014 we were enjoying increases in salaries, but let me be the first to say that based on one’s perception that may not be enough. But we will still have to work to improve our gains and we cannot allow our gains to go by the way side,” he said.
Acknowledging complaints of unemployment and under employment, Duncan questioned, “is Guyana the only country with unemployment? The unemployment figure coming out of the ILO has indicated that we have been doing better than many other countries in the Caribbean, and so we need to remember that. Our employment that we now enjoy was not an act of the trade union inability, it was not an act of the administration failing to provide jobs, it was an act of those who cut the projects and deny you the right to have jobs,” he said, adding that the airport expansion, Amaila Falls hydro project and the planned specialty hospital all had potential to create jobs, but these projects were all cut from successive national budgets by the political Opposition.
Speaking to the issue of trade union leaders being involved in politics, he noted that it was Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, the founding father of trade unions in Guyana, who in 1905 made the point that whatever has to be achieved has to be done through the legislative assembly.
He noted that the division was caused by leaders and not workers, but “We need unity, but unity could only be achieved if we all are together,” he said, adding that much more could be achieved for workers in unity rather that division.
Labour Day is an annual observance on May 1 in Guyana and features workers of various unions marching along city streets in solidarity before culminating to hear from their leaders. FITUG’s rally was held at the National Park.(GINA)