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GTUC, Labour Ministry differ on using prison labour in clean-up exercise

Representatives of the Guyana Prison Service received equipment for inmates to use in clearing the jungle-like Le Repentir Cemetery

The Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) on Wednesday objected to the use of prisoners to clean up sections of the semi-forested Le Repentir Cemetery but Labour Minister, Dr. Nan Kishore Gopaul rejected that labour organisation’s claim that global labour rules were about to be broken.

The Ministry of Local Government says 24 inmates of the Georgetown Prison and four supervisors are scheduled to be deployed on Thursday to begin cleaning a section of the cemetery as part of a “major face-lift.”

The Labour Minister reasoned that nothing was wrong if prisoners convicted for minor offences could facilitate the prison system earning revenue for their reformation. He said he was advised that the inmates would join workers and volunteers in a “special exercise” for a “short duration.” “As I see it, it is not labour that is being used mainly and specifically for the task. In other words, they are not being employed in a whole-scale basis, they are not being employed for a salary,” Gopaul told Demerara Waves Online News.

The Labour Minister explained that the prisoners would be used based on prison reform regulations that allow them to be tasked with certain responsibilities. “It shouldn’t be seen in the context of prison labour being used,” he added.

The GTUC, in a strongly worded statement, said the contract between the Guyana Prisons Service and the Local Government Ministry for the use of inmates in the “Clean-Up My Country” programme violates the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Forced Labour Convention No.29. “The work of the cemetery cannot be re-assigned to prisoners because this act conflicts with ILO Convention which Guyana is a signatory. This revelation is also occurring at a time when there is high unemployment at the national level and the city council is being starved of funding to execute its duties,” said the GTUC. The umbrella union organisation noted that the non-payment by the State of its rates and taxes, and appropriate subventions hinders the city in discharging its responsibilities to the community.

That industrial relations organisation urged Guyanese not to be guided by the perception of a group or some members of the public, in an apparent reference to the preference by some to use prisoner to help keep the city clean. The GTUC argued that as long as money is being paid by the State, it is engaged in the act of a contract for labour or services.

Article 2 of the ILO) Forced Labour Convention No.29 states that “For the purposes of this Convention the term forced or compulsory labour shall mean all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” It goes on to counsel at “2. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this Convention, the term forced or compulsory labour shall not include– c) any work or service exacted from any person as a consequence of a conviction in a court of law, provided that the said work or service is carried out under the supervision and control of a public authority and that the said person is not hired to or placed at the disposal of private individuals, companies or associations.” This qualifier means if a person is sentenced to community activity then he or she can be assigned work or service.

The Trades Union Congress says that since work on the Le Repentir Cemetery is the responsibility of the Georgetown Mayor and City Council, the two trade unions- Guyana Labour Union (GLU) and the Guyana Local Government Officers Union (GLGOU)- should have been engaged in discussions and agreement by the parties in keeping with international conventions, local laws and the Guyana Decent Work Agenda.

But the Labour Minister assured that the use of prisoners in the clean-up exercise was in no way meant to be a substitute for workers. “It should not be seen as recruiting prison labour as an alternate to the working force,” he said.

Gopaul saw no need for consultations for a short-term exercise that would involve inmates who would be released shortly in exchange for monetary reward or a reduction in sentence. “Those are matters which the prison authorities will determine,” he said.

The GTUC called on the Minister of Local Government Norman Whittaker, Shadow Minister of Local Government Ronald Bulkan, Minister of Home Affairs Clement Rohee, Shadow Minister of Home Affairs Winston Felix, and the Shadow Minister of Labour Basil Williams and Minister of Labour Nanda Gopaul to lead “to ensure we do not exploit prison labour, which would be detrimental to the nation’s reputation, international trade relations and prisoners’ rights.”

The Ministry of Local Government said the first phase of the works commenced on August 4 on which the Guyana Bee Keeping Association removed several bee hives from the cemetery. During the second phase, contractors began de-weeding and de-silting internal drains and landscaping low lying areas with silt from the drains.

To oversee this countrywide program, several stakeholders are seated on the Implementation Committee. These include, representatives from the Ministry of Local Government, Environment Protect Agency, Anti-Litter Campaign, Ministry Of Public Works and engineers from Mayor and City Council.