Eye on Guyana with Lincoln Lewis

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Minister within the Ministry of Natural Resources, Simona Broomes

Workers’ rights are human rights- they must be respected now

LAST month marked six years since foreign nationals who manage the Bauxite Company of Guyana Incorporated (BCGI), a company jointly owned by the Russian Alumina (RUSAL) and the Government of Guyana, took the decision to do, among other things, the arbitrary dismissal of 57 workers who exercised their rights consistent with the Laws of Guyana and refused to treat with the legally recognised trade union, the Guyana Bauxite and General Workers Union (GB&GWU).This also marks the period when then Minister of Labour Manzoor Nadir, when asked when he will take a decision to resolve these burning issues said that it is Christmas time and he will attend to the matter after the season. From the time of these events, these bauxite workers and their families were confronted with many mishaps. Poverty has affected some. They are those whose families have disintegrated through not being able to earn. Some were forced to migrate and work illegally in other countries. And they are those who have passed on to the great beyond. Among the deceased, was the branch president, Carlton Sinclair. He was found dead on his farm and will always be remembered for the invaluable time he gave to the struggle.
For those who have been placed in privileged positions and vested with the people’s power, yet are content to find excuses for not acting consistent with the laws on behalf of the people, the sufferings and cries of these workers and their families are burdens they must now bear. For we can no longer, after six months with a change in government that bauxite workers played a pivotal role in, say that this is the PPP’s shame. This is the shame of the APNU+AFC and a shame they must be reminded of.
While note is taken of the restoration of tax-free overtime to bauxite workers, which they fought for and achieved in 1988 and which was arbitrarily taken away by the Bharrat Jagdeo regime, the act is indicative of the commitment given by the Granger/Nagamootoo ticket to respect workers’ rights. For in this instance where an agreement has been entered into by the parties, the breaking of that agreement has to be the consent of all parties. In the issue of the overtime, the bauxite union never agreed with the Jagdeo government to withdraw this benefit, as such, it is the correct thing for this administration to reinstate the agreement.
But this administration must go further in ensuring that rights are respected at all times. It is important that attention be drawn to the Trades Union Recognition Act, wherein it stipulates that recognition is determined by the Trade Union Recognition and Certification Board (TURB). Therefore, only this Board has the authority to terminate recognition. In the case of the BCGI workers, the TURB has pronounced that GB&GWU is the recognised union. As such, consistent with Section 23 (1) of the Act, BCGI has to treat with the GB&GWU. It was respect for this law that led then Minister of Labour Dr Nanda Gopaul to order the parties-BCGI and GB&GWU- to go to arbitration to have their grievances resolved. And this brings me to the point of the pronouncement made by the Minister of State Joseph Harmon in the last post-Cabinet press conference. His statement that Cabinet has not deliberated on the issue of the return of the trade union as requested by the workers at BCGI is worthy of attention. It must be said that Cabinet’s place is not to pronounce on when or if the union must return, its responsibility is to advise itself and RUSAL that BCGI must respect the laws and rights of Guyanese labour.
This government needs to be mindful that it is not being accused of perpetrating the same acts the PPP had inflicted on bauxite workers. Even as this article is being prepared, the GB&GWU has been advised that a decision was arbitrarily taken within the Ministry of Social Protection that the matters affecting BCGI workers must be put on hold until next year. This is an assault on rights and the rule of law. It is further noted that all efforts are put into resolving workers’ grievances in the sugar industry, even though the government has accused the sugar union of having a political agenda. Bauxite workers who made every effort during the elections campaign and patiently stood in long lines on 11th May that saw the election of this administration are being left out in the cold.
There are many in the trade union movement who were initially concerned when Simona Broomes was appointed minister with responsibility for Labour. As this minister’s performance continues to be observed by the trade union community, it has been the brightest spot in APNU+AFC government. The minister’s recent visit to BCGI has raised hope of Guyanese and energised the workers, to the point where one worker advised that it is the first time in his employ at BCGI he feels respected and pride in being Guyanese. The stridency of this minister in giving muscle to the laws on the campaign promise of a “Good life” is deserving of her being elevated to a Cabinet Minister. For her present approach will be to the benefit of both workers and employers, thereby ensuring a stable industrial environment which is critical to development.
In the meantime, this minister’s power is limited to making decisions at the lower rung of the ladder. The issue of respecting the June 2012 decision of the court to re-issue letters to commence arbitration is left in the hands of senior Minister Volda Lawrence. This minister is not on the ground, feeling the pulse as it relates to the level of discrimination that is taking place not only at BCGI, but across the country and by extension the disenchantment of workers, which bears with it consequences for nation-building.
The issue of labour is about respecting fundamental rights and freedoms and the rule of law. Every operative is reminded, including those who stand on the side-lines, that the Trade Union Amendment Act of 1984 expressly states that the Collective Labour Agreement unless otherwise stated that the document is not legal, it is legal and must be respected. Collective Labour Agreements are not gentleman documents as in the past. They are legal and binding documents and must always be seen in this light. And moreso, workers’ rights are human rights and there must no procrastination in ensuring that workers enjoy daily what is inalienably theirs. These rights must be respected now.