Throughout the course of 2010, the industrial relations climate in the sugar belt could be described as tense at best and bellicose at worst. The culpability of an “absent prone” labour force was repeatedly underscored.
However in the establishment and maintenance of an equitable relation of production, the voice of labour should be accorded serious consideration. In these circumstances, Kaieteur News sought the views of sugar workers from the Enmore Estate on the East Coast of Demerara.
The Enmore Estate, it may be recalled, in 1948, featured the valiant endeavour of sugar workers to establish an equitable relation of production even in the face of fatal suppressive violence by a colonial administration without much sympathy for any worker interest.
The consensus view expressed recently by the workers was that the government ought to establish a Commission to review the living conditions of sugar workers, as the old colonial power used to do, which will run simultaneously with the review of the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo)’s management.
The findings and recommendations of such a commission could function as a concrete blueprint for the alleviation of the lot of the ordinary sugar worker.
The workers emphasised that the crux of all labour disputes with GuySuCo revolves around the central issue of remuneration. They said that with families to sustain, the Corporation must be able to pay a livable wage. It was also explained that this is the genesis of all absenteeism.
In this regard, the workers did not share a favourable opinion of the 2001 agreement with the World Bank which stipulated a five percent cap on wage increases.
They said that the analysis behind such an imposition had to have been devoid of any understanding of the history of the sugar industry. The loss of the Annual Production Incentive (API), it was stressed, was tangibly felt.
They opined that because of variable persistent rainfall, the mechanical harvester and Bell loader can never replace manual labour, adding that in such conditions, manual labour is far more efficient.
The workers said that GuySuCo’s grandiose production target for 2011 will not be attained unless serious consideration is paid to the right of a sugar worker to a decent wage, adding that this was the fundamental point which GuySuCo’s top brass seem not to be able to grasp.
They then discussed the specifics relating to their work, revealing that in the sugar sector, the various estates have devised different yardsticks for payment. Some estates pay for what is called an “open” (two rows across 18 rods) while others are paid for a “bank” (two rows across three rods) or by some other measurement.
Thus a pattern has developed where some estates pay better than some. Workers feel that there needs to be some regularization of these divergent practices paving the way for an equitable yardstick to be used across the sugar belt.
The workers also talked about the “tactical” threat to derecognise the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers’ Union (GAWU). They opined that any such action would result in the instant death of the sugar sector as workers across the country would refuse to work.
They recounted the storied history of the union in the preservation of workers’ rights and the promotion of the nationalist cause.
It was also noted how the Boland Commission of Inquiry which investigated the 1948 industrial action found that workers paralyzed sugar production when the Sugar Producers’ Association preferred to deal with the Manpower Citizens Association (MPCA) and refused to negotiate with the precursor to GAWU.
They said that such a threat was tantamount to an insult to sugar workers, and posited that GAWU, albeit its limitations, has done much in the representation of workers’ rights. It was noted that the very nationalization of the sugar industry effected in the 1970s was an attempt to correct an historic imbalance in the relation of production.
Indeed, the then Minister of Agriculture Gavin Kennard, in 1976, forwarded the view “… As we, the Government representatives, embark on the discussions to acquire the holdings of Bookers, we are acutely conscious, therefore, of the special brief we hold for the workers of the industry. Looking back into the most recent past, we are not satisfied that the people of Guyana have derived an adequate share of the earnings and potential of the industry.”
Rohit Singh, a former union representative, said that emphasis needs to be placed on the conditions of work. Specifically, he said that in the case of Enmore, the dams that transport workers to the fields need to be better maintained. He said that when these dams with heavy rain become impassable, workers are forced to walk or rely on an inconvenient system of punt transport.
Saruge Basdeo said that the Estate’s already depreciated fleet of vehicles used to transport workers to the fields is not maintained. Hence in many instances, these vehicles break down en route to the fields.
With regard to the competence of field operations as a component of efficient sugar cane cultivation, workers feel they ought to be consulted when these plans are devised. They said that there is much knowledge that they could impart to Guysuco’s academic planners.
It was suggested that some form of committee grouping or some other mechanism could be incorporated to harness this accumulated knowledge of field workers. They noted that a number of valuable insights could be gleaned from such a mechanism; for example in the case of the Enmore estate, they proffered that the punt fleet needs to be urgently increased in the quest to stimulate increased production.
The workers feel that such an endeavour on the part of Guysuco would mean a new level of inclusivity of the workers’ input which could redound to increased production and productivity.
The very viability of the sugar industry has been brought into question with the loss of preferential markets in Europe. Glenys Kinnock of the European Parliament had referred to such price cuts as a fundamental injustice to countries like Guyana. During a visit to Albion estate in Berbice in 2005, she said she realized that sugar had deeper roots in the region than many had been led to believe and that the EU was making economic analyses without getting a clear picture.
Kinnock had moreover cautioned in 2005, which was a year in which the international community was called upon to Make Poverty History, “we should not be ensuring that for so many developing countries, we don’t make poverty the future.”
Ever since the promulgation of the Europe “Everything but Arms” liberalization drive, the Caribbean-protected access to Europe’s market, developed over centuries of historical connection, became endangered and was eventually lost.
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