By Leonard Gildarie
I grew up in a sugar-producing community – Enmore. I loved it. Although I moved away since the ‘80s, the connection was never severed. It is difficult to explain to someone what the idyllic life in such a community is all about, the sight of the fields of cane in the wind. There is something mysterious about it.
The smell of the Friday markets along with the faces of canecutters collecting their weekly wages all mingled with the role everyone played, including housewives, in getting their families out to school and work.
As a little boy, the water well would break down from time to time. We would journey to a little canal swinging two paint cans to bring water back home. The arms would be aching afterwards, but it was life.
There is so much that one can write about and the older folks would have that wistful look on the faces when talking about the good ‘ole’ days.
Fast forward more than three decades later, life has changed dramatically. For the communities, migration to especially North America and the opening up of new schemes have altered the landscape. People moved away. The older folks have passed on.
On the GuySuCo landscape, the contours have forever changed. After more than a decade of reforms to protect their beet sugar farmers, the European Union on September 30 ended a 50-year quota arrangement with a number of its suppliers of cane sugar in the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States.
While it is still unclear whether Guyana received an extension, the quota system ending was unheralded in this country, which meant that Guyana under the current system, will have to compete like any other supplier and take the prevailing market price.
This new development has enormous consequences for the viability of our sugar. We are producing as much as three times what we selling for. Yet we continued to deal with an industry that is hemorrhaging the economy.
Who else can explain $30B in three years sunk into the industry by taxpayers, but no immediate reassurance when we will turn the corner?
Let me be clear. GuySuCo and consecutive governments have been offering promises of a reversal of fortunes for years now. The Skeldon project is a stain that we should learn from and vow never to happen again. It was the largest public investment in 2009.
I am hesitant to write stories of promises of turnaround…the same way in which we treat with hesitancy the promises of GPL of no blackouts for the Christmas.
We have been hearing these promises too long.
I am angry at our unions. The last administration had offered them a place on the Board of GuySuCo. Yet we hear how much they love the workers.
The unions have to settle with the harsh reality that the current configuration will not work. The big question was when will we bite the bullet and take those hard decisions?
The current administration surely is cognizant of the fact that the decision to close three estates – make that four in the last year – will be highly unpopular. It is tantamount to political suicide, some believe.
I recalled the bitter complaints of workers when Diamond and LBI workers were suddenly caught unaware, at least so they said, when the PPP administration closed those estates.
Someone this past week pointed out the silence by the critics now, over those closures.
People were not so vocal too when in the 80s the bauxite industry in Region 10 closed, with scores of families unprepared.
The administrations after then were forced to introduce an electricity subsidy to the Linden area, to the tune of billions of dollars annually, to help the residents there cope.
With regard to the sugar industry, we are talking about 5,000 or so workers over the past year, that have reportedly been told there is no work.
A special unit has been established to oversee the privatization and divestment.
From the information I have seen, unless action is taken now, the bleeding with the bailouts, in combination with the absence of new investments for machinery, improved agriculture, and that EU loss of quota, are very clear writings on the wall for Guyana.
From the reports, an assessment of the values of the estates to be privatized or divested is being done by an international firm. That same firm will assess offers that the Government will receive for the estates.
I am happy that there are steps to bring transparency to the process. However, we are far from even being out of the woods. The biggest challenge for this administration will be to quickly find the severance and other benefits that workers are entitled to.
I spoke to officials on Friday and they are claiming that workers are not interested in training and other options that GuySuCo are offering, as they are not turning up to meetings on this.
In fact, we are being told that workers are being encouraged to stay away from those meetings on offers for alternative jobs and other opportunities. There cannot be politics played with the lives of these workers.
I expect the administration will have to come out and tell the workers about the decisions, on especially critical issues such as severance.
We should also take note of the announcement of the union that it is encouraging the special unit to reopen the estates and run them, even taking steps for two crops next year.
This is what I expect our unions to do. Let us not blame the government for this.
Collectively, we are all to be blamed. We should have been taking these decisions years ago. We were warned.
We are about to enter into oil production. Our systems have to be ready.
Whichever government is in place, we cannot have one industry sucking the rest of the country.
Our sugar industry is too big to fail. It was among the top three foreign exchange earners in the last 50 years. That huge chunk of foreign exchange will not be easily replaced despite the losses of GuySuCo.
There are hopes about this industry, albeit in a different configuration.
The workers have to be the priority as the ripple effects will have enormous implications for sugar-producing communities like Enmore.
Thousands of cane workers know of nothing else and will be at a loss.
So instead of killing the messenger of bad news, let us get it on.
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