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Thousands of sugar workers being laid off; unions demand compensation

Last Updated on Thursday, 30 November 2017, 7:46 by Denis Chabrol

FLASH BACK: Workers gathered outside the Wales Estate.

The state-owned Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuco) has begun laying off workers from this month-end as part of a restructuring plan of the loss-making entity, but one of the unions on Thursday warned of a massive economic downturn in the sugar-dependent village economies.

“It’s going to bring ruination to the communities because all these areas they are closing the workrs depend on the estate money and the community depends on the workers for them to come and buy things and support them… all the social things that go with people earning money and circulating within the society,” General Secretary Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU), Seepaul Narine told Demerara Waves Online News.

He said 800 workers at Rose Hall, Canje; 1,800 at Skeldon and 1,500 at East Demerara would be laid off before the end of the year. “They would start to receive their letters any time now and they are already being informed by management that they would no longer be required; they are being made redundant,” he told Demerara Waves Online News.

GAWU and the National Association of Agricultural Commercial and Industrial Employees (NAACIE) intend to move to the court to seek compensation for the laid off workers, as they have already done on behalf of those at Wales Estate who were sent home more one year ago.  “It is intended that similar actions would be pursued regarding the workers of Skeldon, Rose Hall and East Demerara Estate when the decisions concerning those estates fructify. We are also hopeful that this matter would receive speedy attention given the difficult times that have beset the people of Wales,”  GAWU said.

GuySuco’s decision to start notifying workers in Berbice and East Demerara that they would be laid off from December 31, 2017 came less than one month after the High Court dismissed efforts by the two sugar unions to block the closure of the estates. ”

GAWU and NAACIE have since appealed Chief Justice, Roxane George-Wiltshire’s decision.

Narine said GAWU and NAACIE do not agree with the laying off of the workers, but labour laws “require us to be there because it says in the presence of the union the employees have to be informed about the circumstances and all the different things.”  The High Court has ruled that GAWU and NAACIE must be present while the workers must be informed.

The unions want the Court to find that the closure decisions by Cabine were improper and there were insufficient consultations between the Government and GuySuCo, on one hand, and the GAWU and the NAACIE, on the other.

“We pointed out to the Courts that consultations between the Unions, the Opposition and the Government regarding the future of the sugar industry cannot be deemed as acceptable noting that just about four hours in total were spent on the three occasions the parties met,” GAWU said in a statement.

GAWU and NAACIE contended that they legitimately expected to be consulted in a comprehensive manner and pointed to previous instances where GuySuCo involved them “extensively in considering decisions which would have affected the employment of workers.”

GAWU and NAACIE noted that a Commission of Inquiry into the state and future of the sugar industry had recommended that no estate should be closed. “Our Unions contended too that the closure decision clearly was not informed by the full consideration of all the factors which we have pointed out especially that a socio-economic study was not pursued though it was necessary.”

The unions said government’s decision to shut down aspects of Guysuco’s operations did not follow the clearly set out procedure contained in the Trade Union Recognition Act and the Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Act.

“We believe our appeal has great merit and substance and believe that the learned Chief Justice (a.g.) erred in her determination to deny our application. Recognizing that time for the closure decision is quickly approaching, we have intend to file submissions seeking that the Appeal Court considers our matter at the soonest,” GAWU said.

Meanwhile, the sugar belt unions have been arguing that the State, as the owner of Guysuco, is constitutionally bound to provide suitable alternative employment or income support in place of work to the displaced workers for the rest of their lives or a pension equivalent to their earnings if they were still employed by the company.

“Our Unions have argued that sugar workers have a fair expectation to employment until they attain pensionable age with many following their parents, grandparents and other forefathers into the sugar industry. Furthermore, GAWU and NAACIE are arguing that sugar workers possess unique skills which are not portable presenting a grave difficulty for them to secure employment beyond the industry.”

Government has decided to scale back GuySuco’s operations with a view to producing 174,000 tonnes of sugar annually mainly for Caribbean and domestic markets.

The National Industrial and Commercial Investments Limited (NICIL), the state’s holding company for government assets, has established a Special Purpose Unit to arrange for the sale of several of Guysuco’s assets. An international accounting firm will be hired to conduct a valuation of the properties before inviting and considering expressions of interest.

An Indian and an American company are interested in buying Skeldon Estate.

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November 2017