– The plight of Guyanese ‘backtrack’ workers abroad
By Rustom Seegopaul
As times got increasingly more difficult in Guyana since before the 1990s, the exodus to Suriname and French Guiana began and was underlined by people anxious and eager to escape the economic persecution brought on by an ever increasing cost of living which they faced in Guyana.
The recent introduction of Value Added Tax (VAT) has only added to the financial woes of many of the persons in the lower-income bracket of Guyana, causing them to contemplate the possibility of a future away from their homeland.
By this year, an untold number of Guyanese persons are said to have left Guyana for its neighbouring countries. There are no definite numbers to these figures because, in most instances, persons crossed the borders illegally, backtracking across the borders, void of passports or the necessary paperwork.
The lack of these essential documents in foreign lands often lands these illegal workers in difficulties. They are exploited, abused and sometimes imprisoned. Unfortunately, there is little which these illegal workers can do about it, as they usually have no one to turn to because of their illegitimate status in the country.
One of these individuals, Chandra, who has run the backtrack more than once and has worked illegally in both French Guiana and Suriname, explained that she left Guyana because finding a good job in Guyana had become so hard, and because the pay was much more attractive overseas.
She has, over the past four years, lived and worked illegally as a domestic servant in both Suriname and French Guiana.
“I got paid more than 10 times what I was working for in Guyana,” said Chandra. Yet, she said, after working in French Guiana for some years, she realised she was being paid poorly by the standards there.
“I didn’t have any papers, and my boss knew this. Because of this, she did not pay me as much as a housekeeper who had papers would have gotten,” she said. Still, she maintained that it was much better than anything she would have gotten in her homeland.
Through her time there, she said she was both underpaid and verbally abused by her employers, but she kept on working there because the money she was making was considerably more than anything she could have hoped to make in Guyana.
Her sojourn in French Guiana kept her apart from her five children; something which she said hurt her very much.
When she returned home for a holiday and to see her children, she told her two sons that her employers had offered both of them jobs in French Guiana. The two teenaged boys had just finished their Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) Examinations and had been fruitlessly looking for work. One of the boys had gotten a job as a porter on a farming truck, a job which hardly paid him anything for his long and tedious hours of work.
It was eventually decided, as a family, that the two boys would accompany their mother to French Guiana and work.
As the trio set out on their difficult journey from Guyana, across Suriname and into French Guiana, the fear of being held by the police hung over their heads. In Berbice, on the banks of the Corentyne River, Chandra led her sons down a narrow alley to the makeshift docks where the backtrack boats moored.
“The trip was hard,” said Chandra. “Many times I thought the boat we were in (crossing from Guyana to Suriname) would have capsized.” She went on to say that the boat was quite small, and was quite overloaded.
These rough seas and the dangers of being caught by the authorities are all part of the risks that running the backtrack brings.
Following a recent boat mishap on the Corentyne River, Dutch authorities decided to impose sanctions on boat operators who backtrack between Suriname and Guyana, usually without the necessary licences.
The backtrack to Suriname is not the only route through which persons escape Guyana; Venezuela, French Guiana and Brazil are also popular camping grounds for these Guyanese refugees of the dwindling Guyanese economy.
For the most part, these refugees will head out of Guyana seeking better employment, security and opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their families.
These things are not always easily bargained for, as the entire process of illegal relocation is not always easy. In their fly-by-night border crossings, the illegals risk arrest at the hands of the authorities, injury and even possible death from the journey, a trip which is by no mean easy.
Amid the spray and the foam the turbulent water brought, Chandra was scared, as were her two sons. She said that the tide was high and the winds blew in hard, oftentimes almost tipping the boat over.
“I think I saw my death on that boat. I was quietly praying, and when I opened my eyes I saw some of the other people in the boat silently moving their lips in prayer,” she said.
However, they finally reached their destination, the shores of the former Dutch colony, where they disembarked. An overland trip via bus ensued and the river-crossing to French Guiana stood before them.
In stark contrast to the Guyana/Suriname crossing, Chandra said that the Suriname/French Guiana leg was much more civilized. “It was a regular crossing; nothing illegal,” she said. The crossing is frequented by citizens of both French Guiana and Suriname.
If stopped by the police, Chandra and her sons were told to say that they were Surinamese and they had not brought their passports with them. Despite the warnings, Chandra said that she was never scared that they would be discovered.
Still her sons’ eyes, quite new to cross-border travel, showed fear as the warning was given to them by their guides.
The crossing was made to French Guiana without problem and, after another bus ride, the family safely made it to the capital city of Cayenne. They made their way to the expansive household, where Chandra worked as a domestic servant, Chandra admonishing her sons not to insult or upset their new employers.
The first few weeks melted into a month and at first Chandra thought she had made the right decision in bringing her offspring with her. “They seemed happy, and they were getting along fine; learning some French and actively talking with whoever they could,” she said.
Employed with a photo studio owned by her employer, Chandra’s sons quickly and quietly learnt the trade of the establishment they worked with. In addition to this, they were required to help their mother clean the house of their employer where they stayed, and cook for both themselves and the employer’s family.
During this time, they were each paid approximately €300 for all of their services, both at the photo studio and at the house. Even though this sum was more than they could have hoped to get in Guyana, they eventually understood that they were being starkly underpaid for their labour.
Over time, the employers became more and more aggressive, treating them with little or no respect. Eventually, when Chandra, an active Hindu, requested that she and her sons go to a Hindu place of worship in Cayenne, this request was apparently met with much displeasure and dissatisfaction.
“Just after I had asked to go to the temple,” Chandra said, “they started to lock the gate when they would go out.” Since they had no key to the gate, Chandra and her sons were confined to her employer’s large house.
In effect, they were paid prisoners, confined to their quarters and place of employment. “We were not allowed to have friends, or to go out without our employer’s consent or company,” said Chandra.
After some months of being repeatedly locked in the house, one of Chandra’s daughters in Guyana sent a message to her mother, saying that there was some complication with the land which their house was on.
Chandra immediately took her leave and returned to Guyana.
“Before I left, I told my sons that I would be back for them. I told them that in the meantime they should continue working and save their money, so that they could pay their passage to return to Guyana,” she said.
Less than a month later, Chandra returned to French Guiana to get her sons and return home.
Their employer was not keen on allowing them to return home and, according to Chandra, “they tried to brainwash my kids, telling them that things would be better if they stayed.”
Despite the attempts made by the employer to convince the boys to stay, the boys returned backtrack to Guyana. Since then, they have found employment at two different photo studios in Georgetown.
Their mother recently returned from Suriname where she was working as a baby-sitter for a young child. This time she made her exodus from Guyana in a legal fashion. Speaking with this newspaper, she said that she is certain that she will be in Guyana for good.
“Working overseas has gotten too much for me. I want to be around my children as they grow up,” she said. Similarly, she said, her backtrack days are also over. She has acquired a passport.
Nonetheless, Chandra said that she does not regret her stint in French Guiana, nor does she regret taking her sons there. “They learnt a trade that they would not have been able to learn in Guyana,” she said. “Now they are much more employable than they would have been if they didn’t go.”
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