It is Friday night and I am around the campfire outside of the barricade set up by a resilient group of workers employed by the Bauxite Company of Guyana Inc. (BCGI). For the third straight week this nation witnesses the redoubling of commitment to not retreat or surrender until the just demands are met.
Workers need respect for their basic rights (to a union of choice and collective bargaining) and improved conditions of work. The thinking behind the event is that of reinforcing their determination, and a community that has shown unwavering solidarity, that RUSAL either shape up or ship out.
The barricade is to ensure while the impasse remains, not one tonne of bauxite will be transported to the transshipment at Crab Island for export. Where for the past nine-plus years (since December 2009) numerous entreaties to resolve the impasse fell on deaf ears, the time came to intensify the just demands to respect local labour as equals and the sovereignty of Guyana.
You cannot want to do business with Guyana and treat Guyanese as though we are lesser than and hold in contempt the laws we are obliged to honour and obey. Watching the camaraderie of the workers and members of the community, it is evident that when a people are united, they cannot be defeated.
The community too has problems with RUSAL management and cited instances of its poor corporate citizenship. For instance, it wasn’t until residents protested, by blocking the road, the company allowed access to its television signals. Another instance was, it took protest action to cause the company to allow for the use of the waste materials from the mines to maintain the internal roads, which have always been a feature of these communities.
As I listened to these stories, it is no wonder the BCGI management does not want the media or unions involved in its engagement with the Government. They don’t want the affected to articulate, the media to report on, and the world to know.
On a lighter note, this strike has made master cooks of men, revealing skills some never thought they possessed. In the “Crack”, attendees of the campfire event are feasting on peas and rice and fish broth washed down with an array of locally produced beverages. The night is dark and as we watched the sky, we welcomed the sparks from the fire, these reminded us of the fireworks that heralded in our independence and republican status. We are a free people and we must remain free.
I journeyed, once again, from the East Coast of Demerara to be amongst those who elected me their leader, but this journey paled in comparison to those who come from the different surroundings, in the dark, paddling their boats to ensure their presence and make known their solidarity. Bearing witness to this sent a surge of pride throughout my entire being, as to the capacity and determination of our people. We are Guyanese and to underestimate the passion propelling what has been happening at Aroaima the past weeks, is to forget that coursing through our veins are the sons and daughters of the braves.
Sitting here, I can’t help but reflect on September 1969. In Kwakwani, another site of BCGI and 12 miles away from Aroaima, there was a major strike by workers employed by the USA Reynolds Mines. That strike saw the dismissal of workers and the involvement of Minister of Labour Winslow Carrington to bring an end to the impasse.
Reynolds’ management was summoned to the Minister’s office in Georgetown and advised that the dismissals had to be withdrawn. The company complied. Conditions of work were not only deserving of improvement, but the residents in the community were also deserving of better treatment.
Reynolds had rules as to who could enter the community and how long they could stay (a pass system), separate days for local and foreigners to shop at the commissary, and who could be treated at the hospital. That October month of 1969, Prime Minister Forbes Burnham and a team journeyed to the area to get firsthand knowledge of what was going on.
The first thing Burnham did on arrival was to walk around the community, stop and engage the residents, including workers, and invited himself into persons’ homes to hear of their grievances. And though Reynolds prepared meals for him and team they opted to partake of the meals prepared by the women in the community. After listening to the people, Burnham invited them to a meeting that evening at the Sports club.
At that meeting he made three major announcements, which put in place the toppling of barriers and being discriminated against. The hospital had to see any resident that needed service, and there was the abolition of separate shopping day and the pass system to enter the community.
Stories like aforesaid, residents and workers feel duty bound to pass on from generation to generation. These stories not only marked a significant turning point in our country’s history or noted the public unity of support for Burnham’s actions by Minority Leader Cheddi Jagan, but signalled the crossing of a major hurdle by a people who have come to accept that whatever they achieve had to be fought for.
Having made such strides and come thus far, we cannot turn back now or surrender what have been achieved. We are all a better people from these experiences and made stronger when we unite around the historical struggles, achievements and development of this nation and vow never, ever to return to those ugly days. Aluta continua!
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