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RUSAL workers block Berbice river over layoff of 140 workers; union cites political interference

Workers at the Russian Aluminium (RUSAL)-controlled Bauxite Company of Guyana Inc. (BCGI) have blocked the upper Berbice River to demand the reinstatement of 140 workers who were laid off from Thursday and the settlement of other grievances, their union said.

At a meeting called by the Chief Labour Officer and BCGI, the union said it also advised that it would only reopen the river if the two sides reach agreement on an outstanding pay dispute. “The Union will facilitate the opening of the Berbice River where our members are involved on the condition that the issue of wages and salary be settled now through arbitration or some similar condition. The River was blocked starting this morning,” the Guyana Bauxite and General Workers Union (GB&GWU) said.

When the river is blocked, bauxite consignments cannot be moved by barge from the mines to a transshipment vessel at the mouth of the Berbice River for loading on to ocean-going ships.

The GB&GWU says sending home the workers amounted to political interference, in apparent reference to general and regional elections that are scheduled for March 2.

“This recent conduct by BCGI is clearly a planned attack on our democracy by the Russian management aimed at creating political turbulence. Guyanese are not fooled by the timing nor action. Our sovereignty is facing further threat by foreign forces who want to direct or influence our show in Guyana, and it is not without support by some internal forces,” the union said in a statement.

RUSAL is perceived in some quarters as being sympathetic to the opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP) under whose administration the company had come to take over bauxite mining operations in the Upper Berbice area. Under the Bharrat Jagdeo-led PPP administration, 4.7 acres of land at Liliendaal, East Coast Demerara, had been sold to RUSAL based on a recommendation from the Privatisation Unit to build a vacation home for that company’s president Oleg Deripaska.

The union accused RUSAL’s management of “deception” by falsely blaming the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) for refusing to grant approval by government for duty-free importation of fuel, and later giving another reason that it was reducing its operations in Guyana.”This is not true. The Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) issued that letter of approval. When the management was confronted on the deception the position was changed that the laying off is the result of the company scaling back operation,” the union said.

The GB&GWU says it informed BCGI that the manner in which the workers were laid off violated the established industrial relations practice and Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Act because government’s Department of Labour and the union were advised beforehand of the planned action. “The management’s response was that it was given expert advice to operate in the manner it did, including posting the list of workers to be laid off on the Notice Board,” the union said.

The union is also demanding that two workers – Glendon Tinnaman and Mario Harris – who were shocked by electricity last November in and during the course of their duties be compensated.

Chief Labour Officer, Charles Ogle reportedly informed the union and BCGI management that he will be sending a report to the responsible minister. “In the meantime the union continues to stand with the workers to ensure resolution to the stated grievances,” the union added.

GB&GWU accused BCGI of frustrating wage and salary negotiations and other working conditions ever since the two sides signed a Terms of Resumption agreement last year March. “Every effort made by the Union to have the process conducted consistent with the extant Grievance Procedure has come up with roadblock by a management bend [sic] on thinking we are fools or inferior beings,” the union said.