Politician and academic, Professor David Hinds on Saturday called on top government leaders to fan out across the sugar belt to talk with sugar workers about the future of the industry because both sides have valuable arguments.
Hinds criticised government leaders for failing to mount outreaches among ordinary sugar workers to discuss with them the realities of the sugar industry and the need to cut losses in order to spend more on social sectors like health, education and infrastructural development.
“We can’t have the PPP (People’s Progressive Party) in the communities rankling the anxieties and the insecurities and the other side is absent from the conversation. Where are the government leaders in the sugar belt, under the bottom-houses, in the estates talking to the workers? Where are they? It is easy to criticise (Opposition Leader) Mr. Jagdeo and the PPP for spreading doom but what is the government doing to counteract that message of doom?.” said Hinds, an executive member of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), one of the governing coalition parties.
Hinds said ideally, it would have been good to have President David Granger and Jagdeo to go to the sugar workers and speak with them with one voice. He said ordinary working people’s ability to reason, sometimes beyond their own political persuasions, about what is good or bad. “Sugar workers have to be convinced that they have to give something, but the rulers also have to be convinced that they have to give something and you can’t work that out behind the backs of the people. You have to work that out with the people- sugar, labour and politics. It can’t be sugar and politics,” said the United States-based Political Science Professor.
The time has come, he said, for intellectuals to participate in a national conversation on sugar with sugar workers initially and the rest of Guyanese. “We, as scholars and activists and researchers, must join the conversation, not confine ourselves to our little cliques and engage in ‘feel good’ but we must again become critically involved in the discourse,” he said.
He called for mutual respect and the treatment of the sugar industry as a “national emergency” because the political and racial reality is that 16,000 mainly male East Indian breadwinners have to face up to the fact that a mainly African dominated government would be presiding over Guysuco’s restructuring. “An African government overseeing the reorganisation of an industry that is grounded in Indian Guyanese is a recipe for anxiety. Afro-Guyanese are also affected because the conversation for them is that when the public service or when bauxite was going under there was not as much fuss, why the fuss over sugar,” he said.
Addressing the opening of the 10th annual conference of the Guyana Institute of Historical Research, Hinds reasoned that the politicisation of the sugar industry has led to the country’s failure to seriously address the changing global fortunes of the industry.
“We in Guyana are left behind only because sugar became trapped in our ethnic and political quarrels. Fifty years after independence we are now faced with the stern challenge about what to do about sugar,” he said, adding that mere media appearances could not substitute for meeting in the “flesh”.
Producing figures to support his argument, he noted that sugar production has declined from 300,000 tonnes in the 1960s to 207,000 tonnes in 2015 and a contribution of 3.5 percent to Guyana Gross Domestic Product. He further noted that the global cost of sugar production at an average 16 US cents per pound while Guyana does so at between 35 to 45 US cents per pound and sells it at 25 US cents per pound. Hinds said Guyana was not only recording a loss but has been also subsidising sugar being sold to Europe: GYD$12 billion in 2015; GYD$9 billion in 2016 and a projected GYD$18 billion in 2017. Hinds pointed out that from a purely business perspective, the Guyana Sugar Corporation is unsustainable but on the other hand there are 16,000 mostly male workers and 300 service providers to the industry and it is still the third largest foreign exchange earner at 3.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product.
Against that background, he said those who are in favour of retaining the industry at its current level and those who want to trim Guysuco’s operations down are both correct. “There are two sides of the sugar discourse. When one side talks about sugar being unprofitable, they are correct. When the other side talks about if you get rid of sugar, you would be hurting thousands of workers, they are correct,” he said. Hinds contended that the single biggest failure of independence is that Guyanese have been unable to combine their discourses for the broad benefit of the country.
In apparent reference to the opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP), he said one party has used sugar as patronage and as a means of political competition. He recalled that the long struggle for the recognition of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) had been at the centre of discord.
The split in the trade union movement into the Guyana Trades Union Congress and the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana, he said, was the politically motivated work of GAWU and the National Association of Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Employees (NAACIE) in the 1970s.
The vocal and controversial political activist highlighted the importance of engaging in public discussion to inform public policy, understanding of society and decision-making. “All those who are affected by a decision must be part of that decision and those of us who hold ourselves up as leaders must at all times have discussions about the people’s business in the open place and the open space,” he said.