NOW that the court has conclusively decided that the remaining severance, with interest, must be paid no later than January 15 next year, the combined union/party opposition should come off the bruised backs of the sugar workers. It is possible that payments could be made earlier, before year-end, as the National Assembly has given the green light on Thursday last for disbursement of the additional $2.451B (two billion, four hundred and fifty-one million dollars).
After four of the seven sugar factories were closed late last year, the bankrupted and crippled state corporation sought a bailout from the Coalition Government to the tune of $4.563B (four billion, five hundred and sixty-three million dollars) to meet severance, overtime and holiday pay for an estimated 4,763 workers. That was in addition to previous bailouts amounting to some $38B, which the government had to find within three years of taking office.
WORKERS NOT ABANDONED
The government did not abandon the severed sugar workers, though the opposition (then PPP government) had placed them in jeopardy in the first place. It was they who ran the industry into debt in the amount of $85B, and saddled it with a politically imposed, inefficient and incompetent bureaucracy.
By the end of January 2018, the Coalition Government produced a rescue plan by paying in full the most vulnerable workers who were entitled to $500,000 or less; some 1,600 workers took full pay.
The government had then set aside $500M to help GuySuCo, but that sum was not enough. Finance Minister Jordan then went to Parliament for almost $2B ($1 billion, nine hundred and thirty-one million dollars), at which sitting many PPP MPs stayed away.
That has been the pattern of the opposition’s irresponsibility; to make big noises, beat their chests in lamentation over the condition of sugar workers, but they would not identify with the efforts to find money for the bailout packages. On this last occasion, their leader left the National Assembly long before the vote was taken to approve the additional sum for the affected sugar workers.
HUGE, GENEROUS HEART
History would record that this APNU+AFC Coalition Government has opened its huge, generous heart to sugar workers. Initially, it had set up a thorough inquiry into the run-down state of the industry, while keeping sugar workers on life-support. It then came out with a bold and courageous rescue plan: to close the unproductive estates pending divestment, and to modernise the others. It will not allow the sugar industry to die, and will secure the employment of 10,000 workers.
It was a struggle to keep the sugar industry afloat, while simultaneously combating piracy that had terrified our fishermen; finding markets for our rice and paddy to save farmers from bankruptcy; breaking the back of narco and human trafficking; smashing the politically aligned death squads;and checking the growth of the criminalised state.
Also, the government has secured pass marks in boosting public education, public health, public safety, low-cost housing, etc.
The government also signalled that alternative jobs were available for retrenched workers at the grinding estates, and at security and drainage and irrigation facilities. It continues to explore options that would allow sugar workers to secure leases for plots of land to do agriculture and aqua-culture. It encouraged private sector agencies to absorb the children of sugar workers in call-centre and other IT operations, and to enlist them in skills training for the oil-and-gas industry.
But the opposition shrugged off all those efforts with disgust and disdain. Their mouthpiece,Guyana Times, argued that sugar workers even if provided land, cannot do other crops. They compared cane-cutters with dancers at an opera: “A thing of beauty to behold.”
“These fellas are specialists whose work is so practiced (sic!) and fluid that to look at them is to look at the Bolshoi Ballet performing Swan Lake!” (November 24, 2017).
LIGHT A CANDLE
I know the extent of that contempt of the opposition gang, which had led me to pen the statement in 2010, before I walked away from the PPP, “Light a candle for sugar workers.”
I should also be writing, “Light a Candle for Berbice Bridge Commuters” who have been saddled with a river bridge, whose tolls are becoming burdensome. It is now public knowledge that what has been conceived as the Berbice bridge, was in reality “Bharrat’s Best Buddies’ Bridge.” Those Bs have the majority of votes on the board of the bridge company; and they have decided to inflict on Berbicians a deadly sting of a 500% increase in tolls.
It is now public knowledge that the former government used up monies which sugar workers and public servants had in the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) to finance the bridge, together with private investors, who were (and are) near and dear to the then President.
The opposition cannot easily wriggle itself out from this mess where, on the eve of local government elections and unease in the sugar belt, it tried to blame the government for causing the proposed oppressive increase in the tolls.
Minister of Public Infrastructure David Patterson has told the National Assembly that the Coalition Government “cannot, and will not accept, under any circumstances” the proposed toll hikes.
The private owners had given the former government a honeymoon, sweetheart pass by not asking for any increase in the tolls for seven consecutive years between 2008 and 2015. But as soon as the Coalition Government took office, it downed the hammer and demanded in 2016 a hike. The coalition absorbed the increase by giving the company subsidies totalling $465M, instead of allowing the increase to be heaped on the backs of commuters.
Any disruption of the Berbice bridge would destabilise traffic and bring hardships to all Guyanese. The government has an obligation, therefore, to secure this bridge as a public or national good. It must ensure that neither the tolls are increased nor traffic interrupted on November 12, and thereafter.