Royston Petty is a ‘Special Person’
By Leonard Gildarie
History will reveal that most successful countries have been built on the blood, sweat and tears of its citizens, particularly its workers.
The US railroad to the west was one such example, in which thousands died while entering into virgin lands. Conditions were unwelcome yet they persevered. The stories are many for other countries and it will be argued that the leaders were instrumental for making things happen.
But the workers are not to be forgotten. They stuck to the tasks even though the challenges were many.
In Guyana, there are many stories too of the indomitable spirit of workers. With Guyana a relatively young country after gaining independence in the ‘60s, the role played by workers of the sugar, rice, bauxite and mining industries have been valuable.
Sugar now, after years of success in the ‘70s and ‘80s, is at its lowest, with Guyana struggling to regain footing after a crippling cut in the price by the main customers in Europe.
I remember growing up in Enmore, a sugar estate on the East Coast of Demerara. The siren by the factory to signal a change in the shifts was part of everyday life back then. Everybody knew the fish vendor who came at midday and the greens cart with the donkey that called in the morning. Everybody knew the names of these people.
I remembered the weekly Friday markets at Enmore where the hustle and bustle and the smell of the market will always remain.
So it was with a great deal of joy that I entered Uitvlugt Estate on the West Coast of Demerara recently to talk to Royston ‘Dickey’ Petty, a former soldier who last year was declared the “Champion Worker” for that factory. Workers only get the nod for that coveted recognition if their attendance is excellent, among other tough considerations.
His quiet, alert look coupled with his upright posture was but a small indication of the level of discipline that the army has instilled in him.
Today, in addition to being a close advisor to the estate which is struggling heavily with workers’ attendance, the 57-year-old is a battle-hardened representative of the workers to their union, the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU). He has had several bruising encounters with GuySuCo and even workers at times over his stance.
But GuySuCo has recognized the contributions of Petty and was quick to recommend him as a model worker whose role in the industry has been beyond valuable.
Petty was early for the interview, a sign of how seriously he viewed his time.
BACK IN THE DAY
He was born in Bruda Street, Uitvlugt, with his father a Charge Hand at the factory and his mother, a housewife with eight children.
“My eldest sister died young so yes, you can say I was the eldest.”
Despite growing up in the sugar village, the factory work was not his immediate attraction.
“I always wanted to become a soldier.”
Things were rough for the family with very little if any luxury.
“We could not maybe have chicken everyday,” he reflected.
He then spoke of the things that remain vivid to him.
Petty remembers that it was in the ‘60s that there were a number of riots and tensions mounted.
“Our neighbours were Indian and they had to move to Zeelugt, another village, and people were swapping houses because of safety.”
Petty, then young, recalled not being even able to cross the bridge on the north of Uitvlugt to go to the seawall. Many people died during that time.
After attending the Uitvlugt Scot School, Petty joined up with the army at age 24, in 1977.
“We trained at Tacama and I was stationed at Eteringbang near the Venezuela border for a while.”
Petty rose to the position of a Corporal but he was destined for other things.
In 1981, he left the army and after splitting with his wife, he moved from Samatta Point, in Grove, a scheme for soldiers, and returned to Uitvlugt, his home village.
“There was not much jobs here and I got a job at the factory throwing wood into the boiler.”
The work was tedious. “I got use to it but wanted to move up.”
He applied for and got another job at the Evaporator section where the cane syrup is boiled.
“I fell in love with it. The factory was operating and the challenge was something that made me want to come to work.”
His vocal stance on issues did not go unnoticed over the years. In 1988, his attendance and work record performance saw him declared runner-up to the “Champion Worker”.
It was the next year that really started to define the life of former soldier.
GuySuCo had a six-week strike and Petty was a leader demanding better conditions and pay.
After hitting the streets for the protest, Petty was among others locked up twice by police.
“That was the year that the budget came out by the previous government and they were calling it all kinds of names including “bigjet”.”
“Having been a soldier, naturally discipline was something that played a big part for me. I made it known clearly to my fellow sugar workers that regular attendance and attention to detail were very important.”
Petty recalled the days of the Friday market at Uitvlugt and on Saturday at Leonora, another estate not far away.
“The rum shops were full and the families came out to shop. It was a big day. The village depended on the estate. The culture is different now. People do what they want. Discipline has gone down the drain,” he lamented.
Thanks to sugar
Quite simply, Petty is thankful to sugar for his achievement.
“Back then we sometimes get 25% backpay…$80,000-$90,000 one time in bonus. You could have built your house and buy zinc.”
He recalls that one of the most memorable and saddest times at the sugar estate was learning that another colleague was killed after a punt fell on him at the Leonora estate, back in the ‘80s.
Times have changed now, with GuySuCo struggling to get workers to come out. At Uitvlugt, the problem is a major one with the attendance at a lowly 18% in recent times.
“The workers are leaving because of construction and other jobs. But, we try to encourage them to stay because more than likely NIS and other benefits you can get at GuySuCo, they will be losing.
His role as a GAWU representative also placed place Petty in sometimes peculiar positions.
“You are the link between workers. A worker might be wrong but you still have to ask for mercy. Sometimes we are accused of being sellouts. But that comes with the territory.”
In three more years, Petty is due for pension.
Three years ago, the worker told President Bharrat Jagdeo during a visit to the community that workers needed to be trained more in technology.
“We are thankful now because the community has been given 20 computers by government.”
While, in terms of monumental contributions like engineers and other builders, Petty may not have contributed on the same level, in our view his discipline and stance are worthy of what admirable Guyanese are made of.
Despite the fact that GuySuCo faced troubling times, he stayed the course.
He was not afraid of being locked up or admonishing a late arrival by a co-worker. He is representative of all the workers across Guyana, and does it because it is more than a job.
Royston ‘Dickey’ Petty in our estimation is a ‘Special Person’.
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