RUSAL-BCGI fires 61 workers after strike action

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Chief Labour Officer, Charles Ogle, (centre) meets with representatives from the Guyana Bauxite and General Workers Union (Delano Williams photo)

…Russian-owned firm a no-show at Conciliation meeting

The Bauxite Company of Guyana Incorporated (BCGI), owned by Russian company RUSAL, dismissed some 61 employees on Monday, 18 February, 2019, and refused to attend a planned meeting with the Department of Labour.

Chief Labour Officer, Charles Ogle, informed reporters that the company has now been summoned to a second meeting today, Tuesday 19 February, 2019, and refusal to attend is not an option the firm has on its side in light of the aggravated circumstances.

“They will have to meet with us. They have to come here there’s no ifs or buts… we will ensure that they turn up,” Ogle affirmed, moments after speaking with representatives of the Union.

“We are going to meet with the company as of the earliest possible time which is tomorrow. We will deal with the company. A dismissal is serious so we must treat with this. All the issues the Union would have submitted are serious, serious cause for concerns. Likewise we have to listen and hear from the company,”he said.

The company did not inform the employees the reason they were being dismissed, nor were the employees individually addressed, or given a chance to make queries of their dismissals.

Guyana Bauxite and General Workers Union (GBGWU) representative Sheldon Thomas, on Monday produced a copy of the collective correspondence which stated: “This notice is to advise that the undermentioned persons have been terminated from the Company’s Employment effective 18th February, 2019” and then went on to list the 61 employees stating their names and positions.

This action comes after employees downed tools and began strike action, protesting the Russian management’s imposition of a one per cent wages increase earlier this month.

Prior to the termination notice, the company also last Friday issued an edict evicting a number of workers and their families from Maple Town, Aroaima, a residential community owned by the company where some 120 employees permanently reside.

Following Friday’s strike the, the Department of Labour invited both BCGI and GBGWU, which represents the employees, to the conciliation meeting on Monday.

However, when representatives of the Union turned up as scheduled they were told that BCGI had informed that they would not be attending any meeting at which the Union’s General Secretary, Lincoln Lewis, would be present.

The union, however, averred that it is not the company’s place to demand which union representatives should and should not be involved in the process.

Further, Lewis said the excuse has been a longstanding tactic of the company, since over the years it has always objected to being willing to deal with one person or the other and has attempted to get union representatives to meet with the company unilaterally.

Lewis said it’s all a part of the company’s continued  refusal to recognize the union.

“This is customary with the Russians. In 2009 they put the condition that they will be ready to meet with the Union, providing that [Union representatives Leslie] Gonsalves and Carlton Sinclair are not members of the delegation. It’s a tactic to stall the process that’s how they behave. There is no way that we as a Union can decide who will be the company’s representatives. Not even the labor department or the Ministry can decide who will represent the Union,” Lewis asserted.

“We’ve had a new branch, new leaders that have written them [BCGI] to have meetings and they decide that they will talk with one person. They would call one person and say: ‘don’t worry with this Union thing we will talk to you, you will represent the workers’, or say ‘we can deal with you but we can’t deal with the rest of them,”he said.

In the absence of the BCGI representatives on Monday the Department of Labour had discussions with the unions representatives on Monday to have them outline their many grievances. Lewis says the one percent increase which employees protested on Friday was one of a wide array of grievances.

He says the issues stretch as far back as 2009.

“The one percent is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Over the years they’ve been dismissing people, suspending people, cut out benefits, for instance holiday with pay they’ve cut out that, the question of vacation benefits they cut that. You cannot cut somebody’s employment conditions arbitrarily it has to be agreed on. This has been existing since between 2009 to now, and we have been writing this company, copying to the labor department, about meeting to discuss these matters and they’re deciding that they will not so the strike is the recourse,” Lewis explained.

Lewis believes that the issue has gotten to the point that it requires intervention from the highest level of government, especially since the government is a 10 percent stakeholder in the company.

“This is time for political action, this is time for the President [David Granger] to call the head of RUSAL and put them to sit down. If it was Burnham, even Jagan they [BCGI] would not have been doing the things that they’re doing right now,” he noted.

He says the rights of the workers should not be compromised all in the name of ensuring the business remains in Guyana.

“Our politicians nowadays buy into the notion that has been highlighted that the private sector is the engine of growth and you shouldn’t question what the private sector does, that’s the problem,” Lewis opined.

“The question here is are you prepared to sacrifice fundamental rights and freedom that our forbearers fought for and we have gained for a company to remain here? The laws are the laws, the laws take precedence over anything, the question of economics come after.”

Lewis says he remains firm behind his union members and instructed that they remain at the Maple Town community.