As Guyanese travel the journey to make this land a place not only habitable, but also comfortable, it requires leadership that is visionary and courageous, to seek the fostering and maintenance of a cohesive society. These were qualities demonstrated by pre-independence leaders, who, regardless of political persuasion, displayed the will in putting Guyana first and its people foremost.
The tendency to concentrate solely on the shortcomings of Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan, who brought us independence, allows for ignoring and emulating their strengths, which included their ability to maintain cordial relations, as well as engage and resolve differences in the interest of Guyana.
Following independence, Guyana’s major economic base was controlled by foreign powers. For example, bauxite mining was controlled by Canadian and American companies, and sugar by the British. These two industries employed a significant amount of Guyanese labour, and also made up the largest workforce. Both Jagan and Burnham, while recognising the importance of sugar and bauxite as foreign revenue earners, were equally conscious of the value of human resources to the country’s development, and sought to preserve and protect same.
Burnham, in 1957, during an address, said the moment we give up on the working class we had better arrange for our political funeral. Jagan’s fight for the working class is well known and documented. These two giants helped to give validity to modern labour struggles waged at the time by Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow. Discrimination against Guyanese based on race, gender, colour, class, religion and other ethnicity were something these men fought against. They worked together to put laws, programmes and structures in place to minimise and eradicate inequalities.
In the bauxite communities, Guyanese of colour were not permitted to enter the expatriates’ residential areas unless assigned to provide services. Weeders, cleaners and cooks, though permitted to work in the senior staff residential areas, were not allowed to use the front entrance. Across the length and breadth of this country, those who managed the economic affairs of major institutions were foreigners, who did not look like the majority of us, and rejected our uniqueness.
Notwithstanding the circumstance where bauxite, sugar and banking dominated the economic landscape, and were seen as premier private sector institutions, Burnham and Jagan fought for, created and upheld laws that protected the working class. Today we must ask ourselves how do our current cadre of politicians rate in terms of protecting the well-being of Guyana’s human capital, those who put them in office and turn the engine for development.
Presently, there is the continuing violation of Guyana Laws. It is a backward step and an indictment for the rights of workers to be blatantly transgressed by a predominantly foreign-owned company, in apparent comfort with the Government of Guyana. The Bauxite Company of Guyana Incorporated (BCGI), with government 10 percent and Russia 90 percent shareholding interest, since 2009 has had its foreign management running roughshod over Guyanese workers.
Workers have been publicly and constantly crying for their basic rights to be respected, but the Russian management has been allowed, by successive governments and opposition, to do as it pleases. The exception has been Robert Corbin, as Leader of the Opposition, who brought a no-confidence motion in the National Assembly against then Minister of Labour Manzoor Nadir’s handling of the matter.
Let me present an example of how a Minister of Labour, Claude Merriman, in the Burnham Government, dealt with a foreign company seeking to transgress workers’ rights. In 1965, there was a strike at the Demerara Bauxite (Demba) Plant in Linden. The Mines Workers’ Union advised the Ministry of Labour of the strike, and the Minister invited the company and union to a meeting. The company initially said it would not attend, and on the first day refused to turn up. The union and company were once again invited, and at that meeting, the company’s representative entered and took a seat.
Merriman asked the Personnel Manager, “Who are you?” He responded, “I am Louis Mobrey, Personnel Manager of Demba.” The Minister’s response was, “I invited you to a meeting yesterday and you sent a message that you were not coming. Today you have turned up, opened the door and walked into my meeting.” He went on to say the meeting was his, and ordered Mobrey out.
Merriman made it known that Mobrey could only return when an apology was offered for disrespecting his office, the laws and culture of Guyana. Mobrey complied, both orally and written, and the issue/grievance between the union and company, with the minister playing a conciliating role, was resolved.
On Friday last (15th February), BCGI workers took industrial action, protesting the company’s imposition of a one percent increase in wages and its continuous refusal to deal with the recognised union, the Guyana Bauxite & General Workers’ Union (GB&GWU). Immediately after the workers struck, management reportedly threatened that if they did not return to work within the day, they would be fired. A circular was subsequently issued, on the same day, advising that the mines and maintenance department would be closed, and workers should leave the premises.
The Union advised the Labour Department of the new development and was invited to a meeting, along with the management, tomorrow – i.e. Monday, February 18th. It will be left to be seen whether BCGI’s management, that has been contemptuous of our laws and workers/citizens, will attend the meeting. If they fail to do so, the workers, the trade union community and society will take note of the action(s) the subject minister and ministry would employ to ensure the dignity and respect for the Laws of Guyana and Guyanese.
We are in an election season, and this will probably be the most highly contested. United Nations Resident Representative Mikiko Tanaka, at a recent address, reminds us that “SDG [Sustainable Development Goal] 16 recognises that building peaceful, just and inclusive societies that provide equal access to justice and that are based on respect for human rights, including the rights of development, requires effective rule of law and good governance on all levels, and are transparent, effective and accountable to institutions.”
She went on further to note that voting citizens, both young and old, and male and female, should inform themselves of issues that affect their lives in the wider society, as well as what they should expect and demand from political parties as it relates to shaping the future of the country. Government, Opposition and citizens are urged to pay heed.
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