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GAWU threatens more strike action if no talks; proposes single-digit wage increase

GAWU President, Komal Chand.

Sugar workers are threatening to resume strike action if the Guyana Sugar Corporation (Guysuco) fails to commence negotiations for a nine percent increase in wages and salaries, President of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers’ Union (GAWU), Komal Chand said Tuesday.

Chand noted that 2015 was the first time in five years that GAWU had proposed the lowest increase in wages and salaries and even so would be willing to compromise during negotiations. “We thought that the industry would not be doing so well so we went to single-digit… We are saying that always we have compromised,” he said.

He disagreed with Agriculture Minister, Noel Holder who said sugar workers are being paid well. Chand, instead, pointed out that on average cane harvesters earn about GUY$1.2 annually for hard and arduous work while at the end of their work-life they get a measly pension.

Chand told Demerara Waves Online News that the three-day strike by the estimated 16,000 field and factory workers was called off Tuesday to allow the management of the cash-strapped corporation to consider a formal request for talks to begin immediately. “The strike was called off today (Tuesday) for Guysuco to exercise their wisdom in meeting with the union to engage in collective bargaining,” he said.

He warned that if Guysuco did not consider the union’s request favourably, another strike could be called at the seven estates at a time when sugar cane is being harvested. “If they don’t respond positively then we will have to consider our next action which could mean a further engagement in industrial action by the workers at the strike level,” he said.

GAWU hopes that Guysuco would respond to its letter dated October 27, 2015, even as the workers have been told to return to work on Wednesday.

Workers have already lost pay for the three days that they had been on strike.

Chand rejected criticisms that GAWU was calling strikes at a time when the industry was performing fair, saying that was why the union had exercised restraint and waited until “this last moment” to engage in industrial action. He said the leadership of the union could not ignore the decision by ordinary workers to strike. “We have to respect the democracy in GAWU where we have to respect our members who are urging us to show leadership direction because we are sitting down passively and allowing this thing to slide,” he said.

The GAWU President said his union and members grew impatient awaiting the commencement of negotiations because no one knew when the Cabinet would eventually examine the report by the Commission of Inquiry into the sugar industry.

Guysuco had asked GAWU to await the consideration of the report by Cabinet which represents the government as the sole shareholder in the company before wage talks begin.

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.

GAWU said it had been informed since September 16, 2015 that negotiations would have commenced on October 7, 2015. However, it was only on October 6 that Guysuco said it would not be able to do so until Cabinet considers the report by the Commission of Inquiry.