-calls for Lincoln Lewis’ exclusion from meeting, river to be cleared
TENSIONS flared on Monday when the Russian-owned Bauxite Company, RUSAL, refused to meet the Guyana Bauxite and General Workers’ Union (GB&GWU), saying it does not want to engage Lincoln Lewis.
Lewis is the general secretary of the union. The company and union have been at odds for more than a week after RUSAL declared that it has not been making profits in recent years and will be closing sections of its operations, while laying off 30 workers to add to the 61 it had fired.
“Well the Russians said they are not prepared to meet with the union unless Lincoln Lewis is absent and the river is unblocked so they can reinstate the workers,” said President of the Guyana Trades Union Congress, Coretta McDonald, in an invited comment on Monday.
She had just stepped out of a meeting with the union and the Department of Labour.
The meeting was initially set to allay the uncertainty surrounding the dismissal of workers who had taken strike action on February 15 to protest a one per cent increase in salaries for 2019. The workers have since blocked the river where the company’s bauxite-laden barges have to pass to go to the transhipment station for loading on ocean-going vessels.
“There was no collective agreement since 2009 and there are lots of matters pending so we need to sit at a table and iron out the issues after which we will move to the next step,” said McDonald. Although the company did not meet with the union representatives, they had a discussion with Junior Minister of Social Protection, Keith Scott and Chief Labour Officer (CLO), Charles Ogle.
In an effort to quell the situation, the ministry met with the union to brief them on what was discussed during the meeting. Scott said the company has agreed to make some proposals which will be given to the union for further collective discussions. He believes that industrial relations are satisfactory and as such, the company will have to come to the table at some point.
“I should think that the issue is closer to being resolved because they will be putting the proposals in black and white by the end of the day,” said Ogle. The government officials did not reveal what the proposals were, but McDonald said they were told that the company is asking for the river to be unblocked because they are paying $1 million a day.
“But we are clear, we will continue to block the river until they decide to meet with the union and recognise the members,” she said.
“It has gone too far and it must be stopped…Russians must respect the laws of this land and if the higher authorities cannot do it then we will do it,” said McDonald.
She also said that if they do not want to respect the laws they could “pack up and leave” because the workers are prepared to pack up and leave. Lewis agreed with McDonald, noting that the company should leave if they do not want to uphold the laws. The veteran trade unionist said he will not step away from the union to facilitate a meeting.
Lewis said the law provides for the ministry to call an arbitration tribunal to deal with the matter, a move which the union is prepared to support. “We heard that they want to set up a technical committee but we would prefer that the matter go to arbitration,” said Lewis.
According to U.S. media company Bloomberg, RUSAL has suspended its mining unit in Guyana over the current labour conflict which saw the dismissal of over 90 workers for engaging in strike action. The publication stated that RUSAL, in emailed comments, claimed that workers “declined to work and demanded a pay increase, even though their salaries had been adjusted for forecast inflation at the end of last year.”
This saw the company moving its equipment to a guarded warehouse as part of a decision taken on February 15, 2019, to suspend its mining unit due to a “massive violation of labour discipline.”
Minister Scott, however, said this issue was not raised by the company during the meeting on Monday. Efforts to get a comment from representatives of RUSAL proved futile since the officials declined to comment on the matter. Minister Ally, at a recent meeting with RUSAL executives, had lobbied for reinstatement of the fired workers; she made it clear that government’s main interest is to protect the rights of its citizens. RUSAL owns 90 per cent of the Bauxite Company of Guyana Inc. (BCGI) and has been operating in Guyana since 2004.
MINISTER of Natural Resources, Raphael Trotman, said that he has ordered the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) to conduct a technical and legal assessment of all RUSAL operations and is hoping to have that report submitted to him at the earliest opportunity.