by Zena Henry
The Guyana Trade Union Congress’(GTUC), usual meeting place at Woolford Avenue in the Critchlow Labour College building was filled with energy and optimism when the opposition A Partnership for National Unity +Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) coalition promised among other things, the restoration of collective bargaining between unions and government following the upcoming General and Regional Elections.
To a packed room of public workers hailing from various sectors within the country, the party promised a genuine co-operation with social partners that will see “real inclusionary democracy” and a drastic change to the way the country is managed. This co-operation will ensure the return of Collective Bargaining Agreement which has not been used for a number of years; denying workers’ and their representatives from seriously addressing issues such as pay, work conditions, benefits and other incentives.
The trend has been the “arbitrary” imposition of retroactive wage increases usually around five percent at the end of each year despite protests and strong rejections by workers and their representatives. Both the Opposition’s Presidential candidate David Granger and Prime Ministerial candidate Moses Nagamootoo recognized this problem and urged the workers to vote for change to get rid of this form of “dictatorship.”
“After that brilliant strike of 1999 they never sat down with the union to discuss wages and salaries and conditions of service. They treated the entire trade union system with contempt. They are dictatorial. Every Christmas they come around like Santa Claus. You complain, they come with the same thing. We are going to stand behind the unions so that the unions can sit with the employers and restore collective bargaining,” added Granger. “Back to the bargaining table, no more freck!”
It was noted too that public workers have been divided, paid “starvation wages”, are overworked and mistreated. Nagamootoo spoke to a number of wrongs which he said the government perpetuates, but advised that, “We must be conscious of the fact that … labour in Guyana is divided and labour in Guyana has been weakened by this division…”
There are two organisations claiming to be umbrella union bodies: GTUC and the breakaway government-friendly Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG).
Nagamootoo said that justice must be done for the working poor, and, “we realized that the wages being paid are starvation wages and you need a government that respect your labour and reward you for that labour.” The opposition has promised a 10 percent across-the-board increase in government employees’ wages and salaries if elected to office on May 11, 2015, sparking off criticism by the incumbent administration that such pay hikes would fuel inflation, further devaluation of the Guyana dollar and increase in interest rates.
The Prime Ministerial candidate said that the people also need a government committed to correcting historical wrongs. “So if you hear us say we will respect members of co-operatives who had land and whose land has been arbitrarily taken away then it is an act of justice to restore land, particularly land and other assets belonging to the co-operative movement.”
“If you hear us say the workers need to train a future generation of conscience working people who would know that labour can defend high principles of equality and justice, then it is correcting an historical wrong and this new government will restore fully the subvention to the Critchlow Labour College.” A number of programmes at that institution have been scrapped over the years because, according to government, the subventions have not been properly accounted for, a charge that has been rejected by the GTUC.
Nagamootoo said the Coalition will respect, defend and restore ancestral lands to Afro Guyanese descendants of slaves who sacrificed for Guyana, “then it is correcting an historical wrong that the ancestral land should go to the ancestors of African slaves.” Nagamootoo then stated that where land has become redundant in the sugar estates, as priority, the land must be given to sugar workers.
He noted then that the current government should tremble in the last days to elections.
Granger implored that the gathering to “vote the criminals out.” He said they are the ones responsible for the countries problems but they live in the gated communities and are not affected. He focused on the party’s manifesto, highlighting various aspects relevant to the country’s development.
The GTUC’s General Secretary Lincoln Lewis in his address lambasted the government for ignoring both local and international labour laws, the mistreatment and disrespect of public workers.
He said “they are no longer employable. They need to be fired… ” Lewis said that any governing party must be held accountable as they are the employees of the people and must be fired if they cannot do the job.
Representing young people, Guyana Public Service Union’s Jermain Hermanstine said that, “the days of no respect for labour agreements and ILO Conventions are over.” He said past leaders such as Desmond Hoyte, Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan were politicians, “but what we have is a set of businessmen in government for business.” He urged his fellow union members that the time for change is now.
Karen Vansluytman-Corbin held the torch for women and spoke of escalating cases of sexual harassment in the work place and other struggles weighing down on women. She said they are victimized and even fired when complaints are made.
She said single mothers have to pick ‘hand fair’ until the next pay day; giving a case of a single mother with a rent of $25,000 receiving and $37,000 salary and females dominating the security guard field with no proper facilities available to them; highlighting another case where a woman has to go to work with a bucket to relieve herself because there are no facilities.
The representative opined that women are suffering under this regime and urged her woman folk that it is time for change.