The United Company Russian Aluminium (RUSAL)-controlled Bauxite Company of Guyana, Inc. on Monday called on striking workers to stop blocking the upper Berbice River and allow bauxite-laden barges to pass in exchange for the reinstatement of 61 workers, officials said.
Government’s Chief Labour Officer, Charles Ogle and Junior Minister of Labour, Keith Scott said the company has tabled proposals to resolve the dispute that was triggered by last month’s one-percent pay increase. Scott said he was hopeful that the unrest would be settled soon.
“There seems to be some way forward in the making. They will be giving us some proposals that they have which I will run with the union and then they will make a collective decision, between the union and them,” Scott said. The Junior Labour Minister also said the company would at some stage have to go to the table.
Asked whether the dispute was closer to a resolution, Ogle said “I think so” because the company would formally submit their written proposals and we’ll discuss them”.
However, President of the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC), Coretta McDonald and General Secretary of the Guyana Bauxite and General Workers’ Union (GB&GWU), Lincoln Lewis vowed that the blockade would not cease unless the company recognises the union unconditionally.
“The union is clear. We will continue to block the river until the Russians decide that they are going to recognise the union and they are going to sit to talk with the representatives of the workers regardless of whether it is Lincoln Lewis, Leslie Gonsalves, Coretta McDonald or whomever is there representing the union,” McDonald declared.
The company was reportedly losing GYD$1 million per day as a result of the Berbice River transshipment route being blocked for almost one week now.
While the Chief Labour Officer said Lewis was not asked to stay away from Monday’s meeting because RUSAL does not want to sit around the bargaining table in his presence, Lewis was adamant that he would not be dictated to.
The Guyana government has maintained that the union has been duly recognised and certified as representatives of RUSAL-BCGI workers. Lewis declared that he would not be giving into RUSAL’s demand for him to stay away from the meeting. “Why should I? The next thing the Russians will do is to tell us who will be the President of this country. I’m not prepared to do that. Recuse? For what? Anybody can tell them to recuse themselves,” Lewis said.
The GTUC and GB&GWU want the Minister of Labour to send the long-running industrial dispute to arbitration whose recommendations would be final and binding and enforceable by the company if it refuses implementation. Lewis argued that RUSAL would not be in favour of arbitration because they would have to “open the books”.
Lending solidarity to the GB&GWU and GTUC is the Federation of Independent Trades Union of Guyana (FITUG). “Here it is you have a company, an employer who is in blatant violation of the laws of Guyana and the issue is seemingly being resolved and here you have the employer refusing to engage and meet with the recognised union contrary to our laws and it is unfortunate that the Department of Labour is unable to bridge that gap and this has to be a concern for the labour movement because you can’t allow foreign workers to come and ‘take their eyes and pass’ (disrespect) workers as they are doing now and that is our concern,” said FITUG’s Seepaul Narine
Another GB&GWU representative, who attended Monday’s meeting, said apparently the Labour Ministry “frighten these people”. “People have to understand that they are in Guyana and there are laws governing workers and they have to abide by the law. Let them go!” the union member said.
The Ministry of Natural Resources has asked the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission to conduct a legal and technical review of RUSAL’s operations to brief President David Granger and his Cabinet, before a decision is taken.