In a strong signal of a growing anger, the country’s trade unions yesterday met to find ways to respond to the current ongoing crisis at Rusal, Upper Berbice, in Region 10.
It would have been an unusual setting at the Critchlow Labour College for a number of unions which traditionally had been at odds with each other.
However, the situation with bauxite workers, scores who have been fired by Rusal, has galvanized the unions, finding a common cause.
According to the unions, the actions of Rusal’s subsidiary, the Bauxite Company of Guyana Inc. (BCGI), is a situation that cannot be left unchecked, lest other foreign investors believe that they can treat local workers with the same disdain.
Among the options being considered are picketing the Queenstown office of Rusal, engaging the Russian embassy and a visit to the Aroaima and Kurubuka mine site to check on the situation.
Chairing the meeting yesterday was General Secretary of the Guyana Bauxite and General Workers Union (GB&GWU), Lincoln Lewis.
The other unions present were the Guyana Labour Union, the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers’ Union, the Guyana Teachers’ Union and the National Association of Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Employees.
Lewis’ union was derecognized by Rusal, which ran into trouble over a week ago after it paid workers a one percent increase. The workers demanded a meeting, but Rusal ordered them back to work at the Kurubuka mine site. However, the workers stood down and the company’s management closed the mining operations.
Two weekends ago, the company ordered its kitchen to stop cooking for workers and told 61 employees that their services were terminated.
Rusal refused to meet Government while the bauxite union reps and Lewis were present.
It did meet with government last week and was warned to reinstate the fired workers.
However, as of Monday, the workers continued staying at the living quarters of the BCGI, at Aroaima, with neighbouring communities and Government sending in food supplies.
In the absence of its workforce, Rusal has been using stockpiles of mined bauxite to run its operations. It has continued to send out bauxite in barges along the Berbice River.
While initially 61 workers were sent home, the number of employees told to leave has grown to over 90 persons.
Yesterday, the unions said that the situation was intolerable.
Lewis disclosed that it is worrying that the Russians have derecognized a legitimate union, one that is recognized by Government.
“Their actions do not buttress their statements. They have fired workers.”
According to GAWU’s General Secretary, Seepaul Narine, the situation has to be taken control of, as a similar one happened with the Malaysian-owned Demerara Timbers Limited. He said that the union was derecognized forcing a court action.
Lewis noted that Rusal has a troubling track record of poor relations from Nigeria, Guinea, Jamaica and now Guyana.
“The clear intent is not to treat with workers.”
He urged the union to arrive at a concerted plan to send a strong message that such behaviour would not be condoned.
In 2009, Rusal, just being a few years here, fired 57 workers without any sanctions from the government of the day. One decade later, the issue has not been resolved.
He said that the strategy should be one that sends a clear message to all companies that are coming here, that it will not be tolerated.
According to Lewis, it is worrisome that the Rusal has not been making a profit, with indications that transfer pricing and other tricky accounting is being used to hide profits.
He said that the company would have benefitted from tax concessions.
According to the union leader, the move will be to examine the official returns filed by BCGI and make comparisons of bauxite prices paid by BCGI as against world prices.
GLU’s head, Carvil Duncan disclosed that from indication there are about 90 workers sent home. The first priority would be getting those workers back to work.
The union officials said that the Government erred in meeting the Russians last week without the workers’ representatives being present.
“The strategy will have to be for the long haul. This is a struggle,” Duncan said.
According to Komal Chand, President of GAWU, the priority has to be getting the fired workers back their jobs.
The officials deemed the actions of Rusal as blatant “eyepass”.
GB&GWU’s Leslie Gonsalves disclosed that the company has poor infrastructure for workers, including vehicles that do not have brakes, and it cannot be business as usual.
According to the Guyana Teachers’ Union’s General Secretary, Coretta McDonald, there should be a visit to meet workers at the Berbice sites. It is not just 61 workers, she said. The ripple effect would be three or four times this number, which is a “disgusting” situation.
The unions said that a joint statement will be issued and there are considerations to bring down even the children and wives of affected workers to send a clear message.
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