Labour Chief meets GAWU, NICIL today
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General Secretary of the Guyana Agricultural Workers’ Union (GAWU), Seepaul Narine
General Secretary of the Guyana Agricultural Workers’ Union (GAWU), Seepaul Narine

— Union accuses NICIL of dismissing 60 workers without warning
— NICIL says decision to ‘separate from workers’ in keeping with Wales’ transformation

By Vishani Ragobeer

THE Guyana Agricultural and General Workers’ Union (GAWU) has accused the state-owned holding company, the National Industrial and Commercial Investments Limited (NICIL), of firing approximately 60 workers on December 31, 2020, who were employed at the Wales Sugar Estate on the West Bank of Demerara.

“The workers were mainly engaged in providing security as well as other labouring tasks. The sudden termination dumbfounded the workers who were completely unprepared for the bombshell announcement,” GAWU said in a statement on Monday.

The union said that such actions appear to be antithetical to the incumbent administration’s efforts to “breathe life back into the former estate communities” and even said that the state-owned holding company was undermining the government’s efforts. NICIL, however, insisted that developmental efforts are underway at the Wales Estate and these efforts are part of the government’s vision to revitalise the sugar industry.

“NICIL’s actions to separate from fortnightly paid workers were in full support of its intent to ready the estate for the ultimate transition,” a release from NICIL stated.

This transition, NICIL said, is the development of the flagship project known as the Wales Development Authority (WDA) from the estate. This project will benefit from special incentives which, in turn, will benefit from a special tax regime to motivate investors in manufacturing, industrial development, warehousing, connectivity and wharf development. And, in light of this, NICIL began re-organising its operations across its varied locations; since 2017, most of the equipment and machinery of the Wales Estate were transferred to other estates to enhance their operational efficiency and optimise their operations.

Other remaining assets were utilised in NICIL’s Rice Cultivation Project, which was discontinued in October, 2020, given that it was not feasible to continue thereafter. As at December 31, 2020, the state entity indicated that it maintained 49 fortnightly paid workers. These workers were deployed in various fields including administration, compound maintenance, field workshop, agriculture and security. There were 32 security workers on record, making up a majority of the workers maintained.

These security workers were allowed to secure employment through the recently engaged private security company and the other workers would be contracted as necessary on an ad-hoc basis to provide maintenance services on the Estate. The NICIL statement also noted that it would have further facilitated the employment of several workers by referring them to the independent security company which is now tasked with securing the immovable assets of the Wales Estate during this brief transition phase.

REPRESENTATION

The Wales Sugar estate

Meanwhile, GAWU also accused NICIL of attempting to thwart workers’ efforts of securing a union of their choice ahead of the dismissal. The union indicated that the workers at the Wales Estate approached the union to speak on their behalf and by November 6, last year, GAWU applied to the Trade Union Recognition and Certification Board (TURCB) to be recognised as their bargaining agent. The board approved the conduct of a survey, in keeping with the Trade Union Recognition Act, that would determine whether the GAWU enjoyed the workers support. The union said attempts to commence the survey were short-circuited by the NICIL which, on two occasions, did not turn up for meetings organised by the TURCB to commence the process.

“Subsequently, NICIL, by letter of December 11, 2020, wrote the TURCB seeking to commence the process, strikingly, on December 31, 2020. The Board, having considered the letter, had acquiesced to the request.”

But, this was eventually revealed as the last day of work for the workers, and GAWU said such actions brought back painful memories for the union which faced similar challenges as it confronted the plantocracy in seeking recognition on behalf of the field and factory workers in the sugar industry.

“It is unbelievable, for us, which, in this 21st century, workers must still face such travails to secure union recognition. Worse yet, such actions are initiated by a company that is owned by the State,” GAWU lamented.

On Monday, GAWU wrote TURCB Chairman, Dr N.K. Gopaul, apprising him of the developments at the estate. The body highlighted that the actions of the NICIL are in grave contravention of the Trade Union Recognition Act and emphasised that the Act has identified such conduct as criminal. Resultantly, GAWU is seeking the Board’s immediate intervention to apprehend the matter and ensure that the workers’ rights are upheld.

In response to this, NICIL said when it received the letter from TURCB, plans were already in train to effect the transfer of the Wales Estate to facilitate the creation of the WDA.

MEETING TODAY

On Monday, General Secretary of GAWU, Seepaul Narine, told the Guyana Chronicle that both NICIL and GAWU will be meeting with the Chief Labour Officer, Charles Ogle, on Tuesday, at 11:00hrs.

“They haven’t put forward any reason (for firing the workers)… well, no reasons were given to the employees (but) the company agreed today that they have obligations and they will have to fulfil those obligations,” Narine said.

At this meeting, he reasoned that it will be determined whether the workers will receive severance payments or some other redress.

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