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Sugar workers’ strike gets labels: “Illegal,” “political”

Even as the Guyana Sugar Corporation (Guysuco) appealed to  the Guyana Agricultural Workers Union (GAWU) to end its “illegal” strike, the Minister of Agriculture Noel Holder labeled the industrial action“political.”

GAWU, which is closely aligned to the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), called a three-day strike on Sunday to press demands for management to begin pay negotiations. However, management has said that it is best to await the release of the report of the Commission of Inquiry into the ailing sugar industry before going to the bargaining table.

In a letter dated October 25, 2015,  Guysuco’s Chief Industrial Relations Manager Deodat Sukhu told GAWU’s General Secretary Seepaul Narine that the strike was illegal  because the union did not give the required 72 hours notice. “We, therefore, consider this strike illegal, having not received such notice,” said Sukhu.

The Corporation urged the union to end the strike immediately to save the sugar industry from a deepening crisis.  “We need not remind you of the severe harm this strike will inflict on our people, industry and nation at a time when we are working assiduously to ensure its survival,” said the Industrial Relations Manager.

Sukhu said the strike has been called at a time when Guysuco’s six factories produced 10,076 tonnes of sugar for the first time in more than 10 years. The Skeldon Factory produced the highest weekly and daily production of 2,980 tonnes and 550 tonnes respectively since its commissioning, he said.

“The Corporation reiterates its call to your union and the estates’ representatives for a cessation of the current strike action, a speedy return to normalcy and dialogue, in the interest of the employees, the corporation and the nation as a whole,” said the Guysuco official.

The Industrial Relations Manager reiterated that Guysuco would “only meet to consider your proposals after the Commission of Inquiry’s report has been considered by the shareholder, the Government of Guyana and guidance provided on the way forward.”

For his part, the Government Information Agency (GINA) quoted the Agriculture Minister as saying that the strike was politically motivated since the sugar industry is now performing under a newly installed Interim Management Committee (IMC).

“One of the problems with the sugar industry is that it has been used as a political football, and you have seen the result of that is the reduction in productivity over the years and the putting of square pegs in round holes by the former Government,” he said.

He advised that the coalition Government has taken a hands-off policy allowing managers to administer.

“We have put in an interim management team, you have seen the productivity has gone up. In fact we have surpassed targets over the last three or four weeks,” the Minister stated.

The Agriculture Minister believes that GAWU, having seen that, is now on the defensive and being a political organisation is trying to disrupt that process. He further explained that the Commission of Inquiry (COI) that was established to look into Guysuco’s affairs had a GAWU representative as one of its members.

“So although the results of the COI have not yet been taken to Cabinet, GAWU is aware of it because they had a man on the Commission who was part of the results, so I suspect what’s going on here it’s political and the government does not want to get involved in this kind of thing. We want management to handle it and we want GAWU to be responsible individuals and look at what they are going to do to the industry,” Minister Holder explained.   

Sugar workers began industrial action Sunday for increased wages and fringe benefits.

But GAWU charged that sugar workers were being treated shabbily and their patience has been exhausted because the union was told since September 16, 2015 that pay talks would have begun on October 7, 2015 only to be told on October 6 that they would have to await the government’s consideration of the Commission of Inquiry’s report.

The report was presented to the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture on October 19, 2015 because the Agriculture Minister was overseas on 0fficial business.

GAWU appealed for the wage negotiations to begin immediately. “The Union calls upon the Corporation to respect the law and the Collective Labour Agreement (CLA) and allow the unusually positive sugar production momentum to hold. The excellent harvesting result should be a strong motivation to GuySuCo at this time to engage the workers’ Union in Collective Bargaining to address the wages negotiations,” said the union.