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Ministerial budgets would be slashed to pay sugar workers severance

Guyana’s President, David Granger on Wednesday announced that ministerial budgets would be slashed to ensure that thousands of sugar workers receive part of their severance pay this month-end and the remainder in mid-2018.

“The Government is committed to the welfare of sugar workers and their families. It has…embarked on an extensive review of expenditure in every sector to the extent of reducing ministerial budgets in order to find funds to enable sugar workers to receive their severance pay,” the President said in an address to the nation and statement to the National Assembly.

The President did not say what aspects of the ministers’ budgets would be cut.

He said it would cost GY$2 billion to pay 50 percent of the severance pay due to all redundant workers by the end of January 2018, and the the remainder would be paid in the second half of the year. The severance pay is expected to cost the treasury more than GY$5 billion.

The coalition-led administration had come under intense criticism for increasing ministers’ salaries by as much as 50 percent in some cases less than one year after winning the May 2015 general and regional elections.

The President’s announcement comes amid increasing pressure from the opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and its aligned Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) as well as founding members of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) for seemingly demonstrating little care for the estimated 4,000 sugar workers who have been retrenched so far.

Granger said his government would continue to engage stakeholders, the Guyana Sugar Corporation, GAWU and the National Association of Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Employees and the workers.

Defending government’s decision to close sugar operations at Skeldon and Rose Hall in Berbice as well as Enmore in East Demerara and Wales in West Demerara, the President said the state-owned Guyana Sugar Corporation which has been in a crisis for 25 years, can no longer be allowed to drain the Treasury. “The Government has acted resolutely and responsibly to protect the livelihood of workers, to preserve the viability of rural communities and prevent the further financial depletion of the country’s treasury,” he said.

Granger pledged his government’s commitment to make the sugar industry efficient and competitive by consolidating cultivation in East Berbice at Albion, in West Berbice at Blairmont and West Demerara at Uitvlugt.

The Corporation, he said, would aim at producing 147,000 tonnes annually, preserving three enlarged estates and protecting the jobs of over 11,000 workers.

A Special Purpose Unit has been established at the National Industrial Commercial and Investments Limited (NICIL) to oversee the valuation of Guysuco’s assets at the closed estates and factories by the United Kingdom-headquartered firm, PriceWaterhouse Coopers before they are sold. Demerara Distillers Limited has since expressed an interest in reviving operations at Enmore to produce molasses for its rum distillery.

“This Government cannot sustain the sugar industry in its current state. It has had to make difficult choices in order to ensure the industry’s viability,” Granger said.

Among the expenditures that government has racked up in an effort to keep Guysuco afloat, he said, included the building of a new factory at Skeldon in the East Berbice-Corentyne Region at a cost of US$ 121 million and providing GY$48.02 billion in financial support to the industry since 2011 and GY$32 billion over the past 30 months – a rate of about a billion dollars a month.

Assuring that government is committed to the welfare of sugar workers and their families, the President also said his administration has earmarked GY$100 million to provide small loans for entrepreneurial activities which could open opportunities for employment after leaving the sugar industry.

He said Guysuco “is not being dismantled” and instead government “is working actively to ameliorate the impact of retrenchment on workers livelihood” by establishing an Alternative Livelihood Programme (ALP), aimed at providing support by enabling displaced employees to access available opportunities to function in other fields.

Employees, he said, have begun training to work in new operational fields across the industry in places such as the field workshop and providing services. Already, the President said 500 employees from the West and East Demerara Estates have  been approached to be retrained,  with over 100 of them signaling their willingness to be retrained in fields such as carpentry, masonry, plumbing, mechanical and electrical works and in small business enterprises.

“The Government is cognizant of the invaluable contribution of the sugar industry to the development of Guyana. The Government will continue to work towards returning the reformed sugar industry to profitability and improving the personal income of sugar workers while seeking to provide a good life for current and future generations,” he said.