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OPINION: Strong words on the RUSAL relationship from Minister Trotman

By GHK Lall

According to a Demerara Waves Online News article dated March 2nd, the Hon. Minister of Natural Resources, Raphael Trotman, has gone on record with some strong words in the matter of the impasse with RUSAL. Minister Trotman is quoted as saying, government has to consider the implications of “either them closing or we closing them.” Those are not only fighting words, but far-reaching ones. They bring some comfort. Maybe some courtesy and sanity will follow.

No investors, be they local or foreign, should be allowed to hold this country to ransom, or to think that they can manifest and practice a plantation mentality and get away with it. It is insulting and degrading to workers and the nation. And then when called upon for either an accounting or to be responsible (or is taken to task), there is the equivalent of threatening to pick up bat and ball and stumps (perhaps, the wicket too) and leave. It is the equivalent of: ‘this game is over’, and ‘ayuh deh pun ayuh own’ (or however that is said in Russian). It is appreciated that this country is in a rough place, but it has to have its dignity, and ought not to accept humbly and meekly the scorn dished out to beggars now forced to the knees.

Now even as I say this, a few points should be made clear. First, companies coming to invest their scarce capital and expertise must be welcomed. Second, the discussing and wooing and negotiating can be – must be – tough, but fair. Third, whatever is finalized and memorialized must have binding power. Fourth, there has to be insistence on scrupulous delivery and fulfillment on the part of both parties with deliverables and measurables clearly identified. Fifth, this is particularly relevant to the rights of workers and the responsibilities of investing companies. Sixth, this is a two-way street, with those roles just mentioned being reversed and, similarly, respected and enforced. Seventh, if and when the relationship becomes untenable, for whatever reason, there has to be a mechanism for either conciliation or a dignified exit strategy for both parties.

I do not think that any of those are either impractical or unfair or unsound. I further think that, when taken together, they establish clear operational baselines for solid, if not productive, industrial relations practice as well as enhanced government-company partnership. The Guyana government has to learn from this debacle; this indignity must not be permitted to repeat itself. Quite frankly, it is my belief that RUSAL became accustomed to behaving like one of those 20th-century robber barons, with little accountability, with the often-accompanying poorer regard for workers’ welfare. The latter did build until matters ballooned to the bursting point and then beyond salvaging.

There is no tranquility of the spirit introduced through any seeking to allocate blame as to which government was derelict in the faithful and scrupulous performance of its duties. The only balm for this government is that RUSAL furnishes compelling evidence of yet another tainted legacy issue inherited. The less said the better. Clearly, this company got out of hand, became out of line, and went out on a limb too far. It was helped in doing so, and in becoming a power onto itself.

Now as the pieces are picked up, the choice is stark: to repeat the Hon. Minister’s words: the implications of “either them closing or we closing them” will, of hard necessity, bring about a recovery period, which can be protracted for workers, community, sector, and country. There is much at stake. The government would be wise to consider a cooling off period for de-escalation of tensions, and to give all parties involved the time and opportunity to ascertain whether the relationship still holds promise, and is worth salvaging through going forward together. If it does, then it has to be through a serious commitment – an unswerving one – to do this together. Or else, it is nothing. It just will not work for either side.

I think in this way, there is no acting in anger, no looking back in anger, and no cutting of nose to spoil face. Least of all, there should be no attempt at machismo. Guyana cannot afford such a role nor road. No messages have to be sent; rather, the questions come down to this: can we – WE! – make this thing work? Do we want to make it work? If all the parties involved can arrive simultaneously at affirmative junctures on both questions, then I would recommend that it is worth another try. In so saying, there is also the thinking that that which occurred might have served as a wake-up call for everyone, as to how to conduct themselves, and as to what is acceptable, as well. And last, what just will not fly, investment or no investment.