We must stand in solidarity against RUSAL

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THE Bauxite Company of Guyana Incorporated (BCGI), owned by Russian aluminium giant, RUSAL, has been making headlines in local news recently owing to various workers disputes arising out of the company’s operations in Guyana. On January 22, the company announced that 142 employees would be laid off the following day. Again, on January 30, the company announced that an additional 146 employees would also be dismissed. Finally, on February 2, the company announced that they had terminated the services of 326 employees and would be suspending their Guyana operations in Upper Demerara-Upper Kwakwani. Following the first batch of terminations, the company cited “reduced operations” due to “shortage of fuel” as their reason for taking that action.

RUSAL asserted that since mid-January they were forced to implement a fuel-austerity regime which led to mining operations being downscaled and then stopped completely. The company further claimed that their fuels dropped to a critical level because they had been experiencing long processing times for fuel concessions by the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA). GRA Commissioner, Godfrey Statia, has since denied that the GRA has withheld tax exemptions from RUSAL. Mr Statia then confirmed that RUSAL is currently under investigation for abusing their fuel tax concessions as they have been allegedly retailing fuel purchased as part of their duty-free concession. The GRA’s investigation is currently ongoing.

Former employees of BCGI retaliated to the round of terminations by blocking the Berbice River in protest of the company’s actions. Workers have engaged the Guyana Bauxite and General Workers Union (GBGWU) who is representing them in their demands for reinstatement, compensation paid to two employees who were electrocuted whilst on duty and an increase in salary in line with other local bauxite companies. BBGWU President, Lincoln Lewis, who has been leading the charge against the company’s actions on behalf of the terminated employees, notes that there is still a long way to go with the company. Mr Lewis said that company has violated the terms of the Collective Labour Agreement and local Guyanese laws; however, he contends that they are more concerned with the actions taken by the workers after they had been dismissed, mainly the blocking of the river.

The company has garnered the attention of the Ministry of Social Protection which issued a statement noting that the Department of Labour is of the position that the employees were improperly dismissed according to local laws and that the company should reinstate the terminated employees immediately. At a roundtable meeting between the BBGWU, the Department of Labour (DoL) and RUSAL, matters were plainly laid out with the DoL calling for the reinstatement of the workers as they had been improperly dismissed according to local laws. RUSAL however remained steadfast in their reluctance to reinstate the workers. Since the meeting, RUSAL contends that they have paid all severance and benefit to the affected employees, a claim which the DoL is investigating.

RUSAL’s actions must be condemned and the resultant handling of the company’s misdeeds must indicate that action will be taken at the highest levels of government to ensure that the rule of law is respected by foreign entities wishing to conduct business in Guyana. RUSAL should be a cautionary tale to the government. Guyanese should always be the ones who benefit the most in the exploitation of the country’s natural resources.

RUSAL’s actions must be addressed and a precedent has to be established so that other multinationals wishing to do business in Guyana would be aware that the “all for nothing” culture will no longer be tolerated. The present situation between RUSAL and its former employees reeks of exploitation and a clear abuse of power by the multinational giant. The government must continue to press to ensure that the former employees, their families and communities are not arbitrarily affected to a greater extent than they already have been. If the company and workers cannot negotiate through this impasse, then workers have to be properly compensated, including the payment of severance and all other associated benefits owed to them in line with local labour laws. Guyanese cannot contend with an environment in which they and the resources of the nation are exploited to the benefit of outside parties. We must stand in solidarity with the BCGI workers and demand a just and equitable outcome.