Minister of Agriculture Noel Holder’s bravado statements, in the National Assembly, about money being allocated in the National Budget to pay sugar workers, whose jobs were made redundant and put on the breadline by him and team, exemplify arrogance and misplaced understanding of role and responsibility.
The Minister has responsibility to make sure that any programme developed and implemented is done within the confines of the law. To make jobs redundant and send workers home without paying them promptly is a violation of the Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Act.
The Cummingsburg Accord, which was signed 14th February 2015 by APNU and the AFC, that saw them contesting the May 2015 General and Regional Elections as a single unit, agreed therein that the AFC would have responsibility for Agriculture. Since it is the AFC’s opinion Holder was the best person for the job, the party must be held accountable by the sugar workers for the treatment meted out to them by GuySuCo, which falls under his portfolio.
One of the first things the Coalition Government did after coming to office was to establish a Commission of Inquiry into the performance of GuySuCo. On that Commission sat Professor Clive Thomas, who at the said time was Chairman of GuySuCo.
As a co-leader of the WPA, which is part of the coalition grouping, he is considered his party’s voice in the management of the company. There were many recommendations that came out of that inquiry. What society understands is that those recommendations did not include the closing of estates and the sending home of workers.
GuySuCo, under the stewardship of Holder and Thomas, reduced production level, closed some estates, and sent workers home without regard for their fundamental rights, including severance pay. The Department of Labour, whose political head is Minister Keith Scott, his party – the name I can’t remember – is in the coalition. He has responsibility for ensuring that employers respect the Labour Laws. Instead of ensuring this, he dedicated his time to talking fluff and demonising workers.
Whereas it could be said the buck stops at President David Granger, whose political association in the coalition is the PNCR, the nature of coalition politics brings with it competing interests and inherent conflicts, and he should have been mindful of the catastrophe the poor handling of the issue would bring to his government’s image.
At the same time, each group in the coalition must be held accountable for its performance. No one group must be held accountable for the conduct of the other. The socio-economic dislocation and scars – which in our society carry political overtones -will take years to heal, landing another blow to efforts of social cohesion.
The responsible actors for the GuySuCo debacle should hang their heads in shame that twice the High Court – Justices Fidela Corbin-Lincoln and Sandil Kissoon – ruled the company must not only pay the workers their severance, but such must be paid with interest. This is a case of putting the cart before the horse on policy and decision-making. Sending workers home without stopping to think of the corresponding responsibility of paying them their benefits is unwise.
But the management of GuySuCo is not done as yet with its ill-thinking and acts. It has now embarked on fighting the Special Purpose Unit (SPU) for the control of the LBI compound. The fight by management to maintain and enjoy the trappings of the compound has seen vengeful agitation against the SPU.
Management lacks the vision to turn around the company, yet it is fighting a unit which has demonstrated a vision to raise money to retool GuySuCo, independent of reliance on the Consolidated Fund. Progress for some means maintaining the status quo even if incompetent, provided they’re seated and eating at the table.
Now to the issue of crime. Last week, Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan did a victory lap in the Assembly as it relates to the statistical reduction in crime as provided by the Guyana Police Force. Notably these were in murder and robberies, and particularly during his stewardship. Suicide also shows a decline. While commendable, government must intensify the programme that has brought about these results.
But there is another form of crime in our society which is inflicted by government. It runs the gamut of transgressing the individual’s fundamental rights and freedoms, such as the right to belong to a union of choice, collective bargaining and work.
Where the Guyana Constitution enshrines these, and government fails to respect them, in instances such as the establishment of Constitutional Commissions (Human Rights) and attendant laws such as the Trade Union Recognition Board and Section 23(1) of the Trade Union Recognition Act, government is not addressing crime in a holistic manner.
This nation also needs concerted effort directed to white collar crime. Government has to move beyond highlighting and defending the violations noted in the Auditor General’s Reports by taking definitive actions to correct deficiencies and atrocities.
Finally, to the recent pronouncements by Minister of Public Health Volda Lawrence, who is also PNCR Chairman, about favouring employment practices for party supporters and members which elicited outcries from many quarters and has resulted in an apology from her. This issue needs to be examined beyond what was said and done. Lawrence’s call is grounded in the view of party members and supporters who feel they have been discriminated against and marginalised by the PPP/C government, starting from October 1992.
None can deny the policy of the PPP/C when it came to office in systematically removing African career public servants from the state sector and other state-owned agencies. The hammer was felt in the Foreign Service, state-owned media, Customs and Excise, Guyana Electricity Corporation, state-owned banks, etc. Some of these cases were litigated in the Court. In the area of the awarding of state contracts, there were also cries of being discriminated against, and some could have only secured work as sub-contractors.
The fact that these charges of discrimination exist, it was expected that the discussions would have been around putting measures in place to address them, regardless of which side it came from. There are claims that since 2015 East Indians are being discriminated against by the coalition government. Some have provided what they claim to be evidence.
We are also dealing with those who are justified in being concerned about such practice, yet they turned a blind eye or ignored same under the PPP/C, on the pretext that groups were discriminated against during the PNC (1964-1992), even as PNC supporters also claim to being discriminated against during the PPP (1953-1964). Each era has its allegations and there are stories to be told.
Talks about discrimination, in favour of or against, in the absence of facilitating frank and honest conversations, followed by systems and programmes to bring about equity, mean society has lost another opportunity to deal with the issue frontally.
The presence of any law to guard against discrimination in the absence of laws and programmes to ensure parity in society, only result in hindering progress and entrenching discrimination. Development and racial equity require foremost society being honest with itself.
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