…PM says sugar workers must not be condemned to canefields
STATING that right wing ideologues in the opposition would rather see sugar workers condemned to working in the fields all their lives, Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo says they deserve better and urged that everything must be done to guarantee them and their families suitable alternatives as a result of the adjustments in the industry.
Nagamootoo was at the time wrapping up the government’s side of the budget debate Friday afternoon when he observed that the opposition had been using the sugar industry’s misfortune as a ‘whipping boy’ to spew racist and divisive messages. He warned that this was a dangerous path even as he called on the workers not to be fooled by the empty rhetoric of the opposition.
“They are not born to be cane cutters,” the prime minister said of the children of sugar workers “they are not born with a bundle of canes on their heads, not born to walk barefooted on the dams of the sugar estates. They are born to be better than their parents,” he said. He noted that his government will work with all stakeholders to ensure that they offer a ray of hope and light for the sugar workers. “I will continue to light a candle for the sugar workers,” said Nagamootoo who noted that for too long sugar workers have been used as a political tool by the opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP).
“From day one right to the end they (PPP) were unfailing in their torment of the sugar workers…That you came here with your hands…and pretend that you didn’t know where the descent of sugar began…They have desecrated an industry which we were all once proud of,” the Prime Minister stated. The leader of the House reminded the National Assembly that it was the former government which had closed the sugar estates at both Providence and Diamond and demarcated lands for their friends. “…not a single sugar worker was offered a piece of land after Providence was closed, after Diamond was closed —many of their friends were given the first preference,” he stated.
“Political expediency cannot be prudent management, cannot be proper decision making,” Prime Minister Nagamootoo stated as he reminded the former government of its intent to de-recognise the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers’ Union (GAWU). “They wanted to know what to do with GAWU by 2010… I lived through this. It is in my system, in my DNA, my revolt against the attack in the sugar industry and sugar workers under Mr Jagdeo when he was then the president,” he stated noting that he risked being expelled from the PPP, of which he was a member then.
Closure of estates he said had been a political decision though the opposition argues differently. Ironically, the Prime Minister told the House that the PPP is painting a picture that what is happening in the sugar industry today is political and not economic. Since taking office in 2015, the APNU+AFC coalition government has pumped billions of dollars into the sugar industry to keep the industry afloat. The Prime Minister also referenced the $50B Skeldon Sugar Factory.
The opposition has said that sugar will die should the Skeldon close. “Well sugar died and we didn’t get Skeldon. The $50B was like water on ducks back except that duck at Skeldon never quacked; it died and it broke down the sugar industry,” the Prime Minister declared. He made it clear in that in this situation blame should not be cast on sugar workers. “…today sir, I am sad, I am sad because the sugar workers are not to be blamed; they want jobs and they want alternatives to move on. We know that wherever sugar factories were closed and people shifted …they turned to cash crops,” noting that with diversification, former sugar workers stand to benefit.
Meanwhile, Nagamootoo expressed much dissatisfaction with the manner in which the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GUYSUCO) handled the retrenchment of hundreds of sugar workers. This week the sugar workers began receiving severance letters even as government had recently announced that there will be a delay in the closure of the Rose Hall and Enmore Estates until 2018 since no system has been put in place for the sugar workers following the closure.
The workers and their union, the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers’ Union (GAWU) have been calling on government to push back the closure of the estates. Prime Minister said the sugar workers are caught in the middle of a process which did not start recently. “Today Sir, I would say that I am not happy at the manner in which all of this is being done,” he said while noting that he expected GUYSUCO to work out a severance plan for the workers and speak to them about it before the issuance of the letters.
Notwithstanding, the Prime Minister said he is pleased that Finance Minister Winston Jordan has said severance will be paid to the workers. On Thursday, Minister Harmon told the House that “a huge chunk” has been allocated towards the payment of severance to the workers. “Even if it is not paid in full there should be a sum, and I understand there is a sum that could be used to deal with the issue of severance but it should have been discussed before,” Nagamootoo stated as he lashed out at GUYSUCO for failing to make available an inventory of the workers.
The sugar company, the Prime Minister said ought to look at the inventory to see how many workers could be retained given that GUYSCUO managed the drainage and irrigation for a number of communities. “They should be able to start the process of identifying how many of these workers should be retained in handling the Drainage and irrigation system or how many would be absorbed by the National Drainage and Irrigation System. How many would be absorbed in the health care system, how many would be absorbed in the community centers…how many people would be retrained? How many persons would be given lands, these things are the responsibility of GUYSCUO,” the Prime Minister declared.
He said though the entity has an autonomous (independent) board, “it is a state board, but we do not give it political direction,” said Nagamootoo who in a passionate presentation on the final day of the 2018 budget debates said, “I believe the sugar workers need a fair deal”.
He called on all stakeholders to come together and have discussions on the way forward in the best interest of the sugar workers. He believes there needs to be a plan for alternative jobs to be created and the involvement of non-governmental organisations also to help the former sugar workers access loans, skills training and potential markets. The Prime Minister said rather than foreseeing the death of the sugar industry, there is need to see the existing challenges as part of a new “sparkle of hope [that] the children of sugar workers can be helped to access quality education and trained in relevant skills to make them available for the oil and gas sector.”