Last Updated on Friday, 19 January 2018, 19:33 by Denis Chabrol
Government on Friday announced that sacked sugar workers, who are eligible to GY$500,000 or less in severance pay, would be paid in full this month-end and the others who would be paid 50 percent of the amounts due to them.
Government’s Department of Public Information later saud that 1,600 former Guysuco workers will be paid full severance pay if it is GY$500,000 or less at the end of January, 2018.
After intense grilling by the opposition, 47 of the 65 parliamentarians voted in favour of GY$1.931 billion be included in the 2018 National Budget for the payment of severance to the 4,763 sugar workers who were laid off. Many of the other opposition parliamentarians were absent.
Minister of Agriculture, Noel Holder said severance pay, including overtime and holiday pay, would be paid to all 4,763 workers from the four estates that have been closed down and that no law has been broken in paying them in two parts.
At the end of robust debate on the original request of GY$1.75 billion, Finance Minister Winston Jordan announced that after a meeting with the trade unions representing the sugar workers, Cabinet agreed to increase the request for more cash to pay the former workers.
That, however, sparked off a short-lived debate over government’s alleged violation of the procedure because, according to opposition People’s Progressive Party Civic Chief Whip, Gail Teixeira, the amendment was made the same day and it was not circulated in writing.
Former House Speaker, now Natural Resources Minister, Raphael Trotman then moved that the relevant parliamentary rules be suspended to ensure that the supplementary appropriation Bill be approved without delay so that the workers could begin receiving their payments without delay.
The Minister of Agriculture said, in response to a question by People’s Progressive Party Civic (PPPC) parliamentarian, Gillian Burton-Persaud during consideration of government’s request of a supplementary estimate of GY$1.75 billion for the payment of part of severance, that Termination and Severance Pay Act was not violated by government paying the sugar workers the severance in two instalments.
Holder said a total GY$4.24 billion is required for severance pay to 1,851 workers at Skeldon, 1,181 at Rose Hall, 1,480 at East Demerara and 251 at Wales estates. He added that security personnel at the now closed estates have not yet been laid off because they have to “continue securing the estates if not t could be opened to all sorts of vandalism”.
Burton, a former trade unionist at the Guyana Postal and Telecommunications Workers Union (GP&TWU), also wanted to know whether the Minister of Agriculture was aware of the Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Act that provides for the payment of all outstanding sums in lieu of notice. Holder said he was aware of the law and that notices were served.
PPP parliamentarian, Komal Chand, who is also President of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union, queried the number of eligible workers- 251 at Wales- and said official records from the Guyana Sugar Corporation show that it is 375 persons. Holder said the matter concerning the 375 persons was before the court.
On the issue of whether government knew before the tabling of the 2018 National Budget on November 27, 2017 and its passage in mid December, 2017 that it needed more than just the GY$500 million that had been allocated, PPP parliamentarian Juan Edghill extracted several key timelines from the Agriculture Minister.
Holder said Guysuco knew on November 30, 2017 the number of workers that would have had to be laid off and by December 18, 2018 was told of the amount of money that would have been needed to pay severance.
He said Guysuco then asked for GY$4.212 billion but by January 18, 2018 that amount was “corrected” to GY$4.563 billion due to the increased number of senior staff who have been laid off.
On the legality of paying half of the severance by January month-end and the other half on or before December 31, 2018, Holder told Edghill that “I am advised that there is no law governing that, just is based on financial necessity”.
The Agriculture Minister, in response to several other questions from PPP legislators, said sick-leave and overtime have been already paid to the workers as at December 29, 2017 and that sickness benefits and holiday with pay would be paid after the first crop.
Government has retained Albion, Blairmont and Uitvlugt estates as part of a cost-cutting and corporation restructuring programme to produce 147,000 tonnes of sugar annually mainly for domestic and Caribbean markets.
The Special Purpose Unit of the National Industrial and Commercial Investments Limited has hired the United Kingdom-headquartered PriceWaterhouse Coopers to valuate the assets of the closed estates before selling them.
A number of local and foreign companies have expressed interests in buying Skeldon and Enmore estates.