‘We’re right-sizing it’

Minister of State Joseph Harmon

…Min Harmon assures sugar industry not being shut down
…says opposition failed to provide plan of action when asked

MINISTER of State Joseph Harmon has reiterated that government is not shutting down the sugar industry, but is right-sizing it to ensure its viability. And he knocked the opposition for not providing a plan of action to save the corporation when it was requested.

President David Granger on Wednesday announced that his government will be consolidating cultivation at Albion, Blairmont and Uitvlugt estates, producing 147,000 tonnes annually and protecting the jobs of over 11,000 workers. President Granger said too that some $2B, representing 50 per cent of the severance pay will be disbursed to all retrenched sugar workers at the end of this month.

Speaking at his weekly post-Cabinet media briefing Harmon stressed that his administration is not shutting down the industry but is “right-sizing it.” “It will be an important element in economic planning and discussion,” said Harmon. The Minister of State said Cabinet continued its discussion on the future of the sugar industry with specific focus on the welfare of the workers affected by the downsizing of the industry and the return to financial viability of a right-sized configured industry.

“With regards to the workers affected by downsizing, cabinet agreed that by January 30, 2018, every redundant worker will be paid 50 per cent of his or her severance and that the remaining 50 per cent will be paid during the second half of the year.” Harmon said his administration is unfazed by criticisms on this matter as it had opened the floor for stakeholders, including the opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP) to contribute to a plan of action. This was not done by the opposition. “I suppose you’d be criticised whether you do good or bad,” said the minister, who said that government is taking its responsibility in the matter seriously.

“So what the government has done is to step in to provide resources for the affected sugar workers, so that their entitlement under the law can be effected. It is that we recognise the importance of the sugar workers, we recognise the importance of their families and we will continue to do what is best in the interest of the peoples of this country,” Harmon continued.

Government has said that since taking office it has given GUYSCUO $1B monthly to assist in its operations. “Even while we were in opposition, it was clear to us that the constant application of GUYSUCO to the government for bail-out sums was something that we needed to address and we undertook while in opposition that when we come into office that we will address it. We have addressed it in a very systematic manner,” he told reporters.
Harmon chided the opposition for hurling criticisms at government though it has failed to contribute to a plan of action for the future of the industry and those who work there.

“I can say to you that GAWU and NAACIE presented a plan, the opposition never provided a plan. Instead, they called for an impact assessment study to be done… I’ve listened to all the noises, chatter that have been coming from certain parts of our society, but when it comes to putting down a plan of action that is where the chatter becomes silent.”

Nevertheless, the Minister of State said his administration is prepared to engage stakeholders, despite having taken steps that are consistent with the plan laid out to stakeholders in December 2016. “We continue and will continue in spite of criticisms made by [the] opposition; we will continue to work with the stakeholders, with unions and workers themselves to ensure that we can provide facilities and arrangements which would make their lives easier and allow them an easier transition,” he assured. Harmon said while some see the down-sizing of the industry as a crisis, it is viewed by his administration as an opportunity to put things right and move on in the interest of the Guyanese people.

Meanwhile, speaking about funds to pay the severance, Harmon assured that it did budget for the payment of severance to the redundant Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) workers. He said that over $500M was budgeted for in the sum allocated to GuySuCo for 2018. His comments followed concerns raised by many that government knew that the sugar industry was being down-sized but did not budget for the payment of severance to the affected workers.

“What we were not sure about was what would be the exact figure, so that in December and January the exact figure started to emerge and that is why we had to make additional amounts available,” Harmon disclosed. Finance Minister Winston Jordan said on Wednesday that government will have to cut several budgetary programmes to facilitate payment of severance packages to retrenched sugar workers as it takes steps to consolidate the operations of GuySuCo.

Jordan said the administration will ensure that all workers get their severance, but noted that it is a case where the government has to find resources to make the total payment of $5B. “It was a sudden and large amount and we had to find creative ways to do this… we will have to re-examine our 2018 budget which will very well result in cuts to programmes, so as to release money to pay the severances,” he said.

This is why the severance is being paid in parts, he said. “We don’t know how these ministries programmes would be affected, but in the interest of human dignity and the workers we are attempting to make the first payment at the end of January,” the finance minister said.