Striking Berbice sugar workers take protest for money to Georgetown; GAWU, AFC differ on interpretation of court ruling

Last Updated on Wednesday, 30 August 2023, 11:31 by Denis Chabrol

AFC Leader Khemraj Ramjattan with sugar workers opposite GAWU headquarters, High Street, Kingston, Georgetown.

At least 100 striking sugar workers early Wednesday morning descended in front of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU), demanding that they be paid severance after the Rose Hall Estate had been closed, but the union maintained that the workers were merely transferred and never severed.

“Because both Albion and Blairmont are within a 10-mile radius of Rose Hall, there was no legal justification for severance,” GAWu Secretary Aslim Singh told Demerara Waves Online News.

Castigating the union for being in bed with the government and the State-owned Guyana Sugar Corporation (GUYSUCO), the workers who are on a 15-day old strike demanded an audience with President Irfaan Ali in a bid to find a solution to their grievance. “Who we need to see? The President”, “No money, no work” and “Who sell we out? GAWU”.

Sugar worker, Kurt Matthew Kayum said he and colleague workers were being ignored by the union, corporation and government ministers. “Today, the union is just sitting down, not representing us and collecting our money,” he said.. “All we asking for is a package. Give we something. You giving a lot of cash grant to people. Put couple more to that money and give the 500 or the 600 persons,” he said.

Rose Hall Estate was shuttered by the David Granger-led coalition administration in 2017 and a number of them was transferred to Albion and Blairmont Estates.

One of the sugar workers said he opted to go on strike because he would have to leave home at 5:30 AM to travel 29 miles to earn GY$2,900 per day before returning home after 7 PM.

The GAWU General Secretary News that the union has been at pains to advise the workers that the Termination and Severance Pay Act (TESPA) that they are not entitled to being severance because Blairmont Estate and Albion Estate are within the 10-mile radius of Rose Hall Estate. He said that interpretation was in keeping with a High Court decision that essentially states that the former Wales Estate, West Bank Demerara workers were entitled to severance after they had been transferred to work at Uitvlugt Estate, West Coast Demerara.

Workers, however, calculated the mileage from their residence to the estate and internal distance to the backdam.

The union official said the industrial unrest stemmed from GUYSUCO’s request for a number of the workers to return voluntarily to return to Rose Hall Estate to assist with cane harvesting.

East Berbice sugar workers protesting against their Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union, High Street, Kingston, Georgetown.

But Mr Singh said that after several meetings with workers and GUYSUCO’s management, the corporation has decided that the workers would no longer be compelled to go to Rose Hall Estate but could remain at their current estates. Up to Tuesday afternoon, he said the union was encouraging the workers to return to work but he said other persons were influencing them to protest.

“We remain with them and we’re ready to represent them within the confines of the agreement and the law but not to go into grey areas…We have to be frank with the workers because it’s no use we mislead them but it appears as though external parties have been misleading them,” he said.

Opposition Alliance For Change (AFC) Leader Khemraj Ramjattan, however, accused GAWU and GUYSUCO of misinterpreting the 10-mile radius ruling to mean a straight line from one factory to another rather than consider internal travelling to and around the estate. “It takes about 17 to 20 miles to reach the other estate. They want to interpret the law as the crow flies- one straight line- This 10 mile is being interpreted. People don’t fly like the crow and that is why it must be interpreted in favour of the workers,” he said.

He said he was in solidarity with the sugar workers receiving a “package”, not necessarily severance, for agreeing to remain on the job at Blairmont and Albion after Rose Hall was shut down and now being available to return to the reopened estate. “At least the government should engage them. They have a fair case. They are the ones that continued working. Having now been transferred back to the estate, they should be paid at least a certain package that is equivalent to what the other people were paid because there is a discrimination in relation to them not being paid anything,” he said.

Mr Ramjattan was not in favour of taking court action as the hearing, decision and appeals would take a very long time.

GUYSUCO’s Chief Executive Officer, Sasenarine Singh dodged all questions about the payment of severance, cause and impact of the strike, eventually saying “there are some questions that I don’t have an answer to.”

“I don’t wan’t to preempt or prejudice discussions.I believe everyone should allow the two sides to finish their talks and allow good sense to prevail,” he said. Mr Singh noted that government has spent GY$8.8 billion to restore the sugar industry.