Last Updated on Monday, 9 January 2023, 8:10 by Denis Chabrol
General Secretary of the historically socialist People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and Vice President of Guyana, Bharrat Jagdeo has perhaps for the first time publicly cited the need to grapple with the realities of “capitalism” as he fended off criticism of government’s position that workers must be free to take up the best paying jobs.
Mr Jagdeo reflected on when the private sector had asked government to find a scheme to discourage foreign companies from taking away their already trained Guyanese workers by paying them more. “They wanted us to find some way of keeping those people in serfdom…He has a right. It’s a free country. You have to train more. That’s the reality of living in a capitalist, free market system. People want vestiges of socialism still to hang on to people,” said Mr Jagdeo, a Russian-trained economist who took over the presidency from hardline socialist Janet Jagan in 1999.
Ironically, it was Mrs Jagan who had inked the award of the Stabroek Block concession to the American-owned ExxonMobil-controlled Esso Exploration and Production Guyana Limited (EEPGL) which has now emerged as the dominant driver of Guyana’s economic growth including the attraction of hundreds more local and foreign investors and the creation of thousands of jobs.
For several years in and out of government, the PPP and in particular Mr Jagdeo has repeatedly embraced the private sector as the driver of economic growth, though he had initially frowned on what he had termed a dislike for “isms”.
Then PPP member Khemraj Ramjattan had collided with the hardline socialists in the party in the ate 1990s and early 2000s when he had called for the removal of Marxism-Leninism references in constitution of his party’s youth arm, the Progressive Youth Organisation (PYO) and replacement with liberal democracy. The PPP’s constitution also refers to Marxism-Leninism.
After socialist President Forbes Burnham died in 1985, his successor, Desmond Hoyte, presided over a major shift of the People’s National Congress administration to a market-oriented economy that had included the sale of most state-owned companies to local and private investors.
In a pre-2023 National Budget consultation, Mr Jagdeo shrugged off concerns by city businessman Dr Terrence Campbell, whose fast-food employees are mostly women, that government was competing with the private sector by increasing wages.
Mr Campbell said before government’s part-time job scheme, which pays persons GY$40,000 per month for four days per week work, there has been a “crowding out of those shop floor employees by the government ” by increases in public sector salaries and paying bonuses which the private sector could not do. “In the meantime, we struggle to get employees, very often. Almost daily, I am faced with a situation where our ability to raise salaries and pay better is determined by the market. Very often, almost daily, I get a WhatsApp message that a store has no shop floor employees to open; maybe just a single supervisor,” he said. He sought to assure the Guyana government that he was not objecting to the government’s part-time job scheme.
Vice President Jagdeo indicated that the annual salary hike and bonuses were politically driven because “if we don’t, the opposition says that we are discriminating against the public servants so we have to every year do that.” At the same time, he said in a competitive market, Guyanese workers should feel free to leave jobs in search of better salaries. “People must have mobility, too. They are not serfs or slaves to a particular fast food place or the Government of Guyana. If hey can find a better opportunity, they should move to it,” he added.
He said government’s six month old part-time job scheme has so far employed 13,000 persons- 10,000 being women- in response to calls by Guyanese countrywide for jobs in places such as Linden and Berbice. He said 1,164 persons in Region 10 (Upper Demerara-Upper Berbice) are employed on part time basis as well as in Region Two (Pomeroon-Supenaam) and Region Six (East Berbice-Corentyne) where almost 3,000 persons had lost their jobs due to the closure of the sugar estates there. Mr Jagdeo said the private sector could not use the job creation initiative as an excuse as “those people have a right to live too.”
“Most of them never had a job before. That’s bringing people into the workforce, women into the workforce so we badly are going to run up against labour shortages which we’d have to supply at some point in time from imported labour,” he said. Mr Jagdeo said meanwhile government hoped to bring in 100,000 to 150,000 persons into the workforce by simply bringing in more women and raise disposable income to “achieve the type of prosperity like in the northern world” by having two persons employed in the household.
In rebutting Mr Jagdeo, Dr Campbell urged government not to dismiss the concerns of the private sector on “the crowding out by the government with some of these initiatives in the labour market” because of the apparent attractiveness of the pay compared to the hours of works. He recommended a national long-term effort at adult and remedial education to ensure that larger numbers of persons can take up shop floor jobs.
President Irfaan Ali, in his contribution to discourse on job market competitiveness, noted that the cost of semi-skilled labour has doubled to US$40 per day since 2020 and Guyanese are returning from the Caribbean and Venezuela to take up those opportunities. He sought to dispel the views being taken by Guyanese that they could not find jobs. “Anybody right now who don’t want a job, they just damn lazy because there is enough capacity in the system to take off anybody who wants a job because having a job is different from the one you don’t want,” he said.
The President said the migration policy would focus on the categories of workers that Guyana needs.