–gov’t interested in saving jobs, preserving communities, says Heath-London
HEAD of the Special Purpose Unit (SPU) Colvin Heath-London, said Cabinet is interested in saving jobs and preserving communities, even as it seeks to breathe new life into the ailing sugar industry.
Several proposals were made for privatisation and/or diversification of Skeldon, Rose Hall, Wales and East Demerara ‘Enmore’ factories, he told the Guyana Chronicle during an exclusive interview on Wednesday.
He was at the time offering his views on GuySuCo’s decision to issue over 2000 sugar workers with redundancy letters.
Minister of State Joseph Harmon had also expressed shock and disappointment at the move, noting that Cabinet had not been informed, but Agriculture Minister Noel Holder said the decision was in keeping with a State Paper presented to the National Assembly earlier this year.
Heath-London said the SPU was created after the State Paper in order to handle privatisation and/or diversification.
As such, he said the request for letters of interest by the SPU was identified as the first step in the process of finding and shortlisting buyers or investors.
The entity, he noted, was created in order to increase transparency while partnering with a suitably qualified international financial services firm “to provide technical and financial advisory support in the process, leading to a successful privatisation and diversification of the sugar industry.”
He said Cabinet had never ratified the State Paper, but the SPU was ratified and its budget funded with Parliament’s approval.
Heath-London explained that before the SPU was created, there was a State Paper which was presented by the Ministry of Agriculture on what should be done with the industry.
However, he said Cabinet in its wisdom later put forward a Cabinet Paper which was supposed to trump the State Paper.
But Minister Holder and GuySuCo decided to stick with the State Paper, ignoring the Cabinet Paper.
“The difference in ideology is that we are saying, instead of the factories being closed entirely, let’s put it out into the international and global market and let’s see if there is anyone that wants to run the cane-producing industry or diversify while making the process transparent,” he said.
The possibilities, he said, are that maybe multiple factories may remain in sugar, but the current management of GuySuCo does not want the possibility of a new owner or management to succeed at making the cane-producing industry profitable, because it would make them look bad.
The SPU had indicated to GuySuCo that in order to make the process transparent and the sale viable, the estates must be kept operational and alive.
Heath-London said GuySuCo should have handed over stewardship to the SPU and in so doing sever the workers, who would have later been rehired by the SPU.
“This should have happened on December 31 in order to have a smooth transition. GuySuCo was also supposed to share the list of workers to be made redundant, and the SPU would have gone through the names and skill sets for re-employment,” he said.
Currently, he said, GuySuCo is doing everything possible to put estates at a disadvantage to ensure that they are not operational for the next crop.
“They have moved the machinery, they have not given us the list of names made redundant in order to re-employ the workers, they want to damage the entity before handing it over,” he said.
He also said GuySuCo is operating in a rogue manner, because when the entity needs money for operations it cooperates with the State, but when there are decisions to be carried out, the sugar company claims to be a limited liability company and does not have to follow orders.
The government and SPU have assured the international community that there will be a totally transparent process and best practices during the privatisation.
“We have a few people affecting the lives of thousands, they are struggling for survival at GuySuCo and not the survival of the cane-producing industry,” he said.
Sugar production is only a small part of the cane-producing industry. Alcohol and beverage production accounts for a major part as well as the pharmaceutical industry.
“Whatever happens in Guyana will have an impact on these industries in the Caribbean, because Guyana supplies the majority of molasses, so it’s not just about closing estates, we have to look at the far-reaching regional and international implications, which the current GuySuCo management is not looking at. They are just looking at their personal survival,” he said.
He emphasised that mechanisms should be put in place to hire a majority of the workers while developing alternative areas of employment.
Underscoring that privatisation of the sugar industry is the way forward, he said the cane-producing industry will enter a new phase of competition and recover from its ill-health.
“The government will be able to gain revenue from it, rather than always spending,” he noted.
The SPU head also pointed out that unlike what GAWU and the PPP want others to believe, the sugar industry is not wholly an Indo-Guyanese sector, pointing out that Afro-Guyanese comprise about 60 per cent of the workforce at the Wales Estate, while the majority of workers at the Enmore Estate were also Afro- Guyanese.
“The only estates that had the majority Indo-Guyanese workforce is Skeldon and Albion, but GAWU and the opposition play into this sentiment to make it seem that Indo-Guyanese alone are victims,” Heath-London said.
If the industry is not sustained, he said there will be many ghost communities and many underlying social factors and as such, called on Cabinet to enforce its decision across all agencies involved.