The issue of workers’ welfare continues to be a concern for organised labour. The time has come for corrective action, not only because freedom of association and collective bargaining (CB) are constitutionally guaranteed and deemed human rights by international institutions. Foreign companies, with the support of elected officials, are making their eyes pass us.
Historically the state productive sector – i.e. bauxite and sugar which were nationalised in the 1970s – was treated equally whenever the issue of remuneration of workers was addressed. During the Forbes Burnham administration, whenever authorisation was given for the increase of wages and salaries, both industries benefitted.
Post-1985, whatever attempts were made to address improved working conditions, through the process of CB, the benefits were applied to both. In 1988, the Guyana Bauxite and General Workers’ Union (GB&GWU), and Guyana Mine Workers’ Union (GMWU) negotiated with the management of GUYMINE tax-free pay for hours work in excess of eight and, all hours worked on Saturday and Sunday, which is called premium hours.
The Structural Adjustment Programme, instituted in 1989 under the Desmond Hoyte administration (1985-1992), saw both industries being identified for privatisation. The reasons were the decline in production levels and restructuring of the economy. In 1992, with the change of government, the act of pursuing privatisation in bauxite was intensified, while for sugar it was no longer the same.
Immediately on the privatisation of bauxite, which occurred during the Bharrat Jagdeo administration, the tax-free benefit was taken away from bauxite workers, even as same remained for sugar. Though the GB&GWU protested the government’s discrimination and continued the struggle to reinstate what bauxite workers fought for, the benefit was not returned until 2017 under the coalition administration.
Coming on the heels of this discriminatory act was that government’s embrace of RusAL/Bauxite Company of Guyana Inc. (BCGI) transgressing the rights of workers, violating the country’s laws and threatening our sovereignty. The Jagdeo Government/Russian collusion was becoming evident. It is the belief that the worse crime any leader can do is collude with foreign forces and operate against its own national interest and citizens.
On 22nd November 2009, BCGI workers took strike action in resistance to the imposition of wages and salaries, which saw 57 fired. The Jagdeo regime rather than seeking to restore normalcy at the workplace by establishing conciliatory proceeding, saw Minister of Labour Manzoor Nadir giving public support to the employer and simultaneously chastising the GB&GWU. When called on to act, his response was, “And perhaps…we should let this festive season of goodwill take its course and hopefully both parties will exercise more generosity towards each other.”
The Donald Ramotar government tried to move the process forward between the Union and management when Minister of Labour Dr. Nanda Gopaul on 29th February 2012 imposed compulsory arbitration. However, this was stalled, and after a while it became evident there was a hidden hand in the political hierarchy that wanted the Russians to run wild.
Earlier this year (15th February) bauxite workers had cause to take strike action against the imposition of a one percent pay increase. The management retaliated by firing 61. The Union called on the government, opposition and all Guyanese to condemn the threat to our sovereignty and the transgressing of workers’ rights. Whereas others spoke out and gave solidarity, the Opposition Leader remained mum.
That strike lasted for one month and four days, ending on the 20th March with the signing of Terms of Resumption. It took the workers of BCGI approximately nine (9) years, three (3) months, and twenty-eight (28) days for management to recognise their Union, but management continues to engage in dilatory tactics not to pay them. They are not negotiating in good faith, so the struggle continues.
These wrongs while partially resolved by the coalition, cannot be seen as the end to the responsibility of this government. There is still much more work to be done to bring about a harmonious industrial climate. Having been disappointed for the 12 years of Jagdeo presidency, workers are counting on the coalition to do a better job at addressing the industrial environment. Compared to Jagdeo, Ramotar made a little more effort, as notable in the case of BCGI, though his effort was immobilised by his predecessor and clan.
Workers are relying on the coalition to make sure the management of GuySuCo sits at the table and engages in CB with the sugar unions. Note is taken of Minister of Finance Winston Jordan’s statement where reportedly he “stressed that the union must sit with management to come up with a deal for satisfactory pay packages” (SN-Dec 6th: ‘Granger, Jagdeo differ on way ahead for sugar’). This must move from ministerial words to management’s action. At the table it will be determined, through the process of negotiating, what can and cannot happen. Any failure or undermining of the process will be interpreted as an act of bad faith by either party.
Whereas Jagdeo once threatened GAWU with de-recognition when the Union was agitating for increased wages and improve working conditions, should the coalition not make sure GuySuCo honour CB, it could be interpreted as equalising the playing field with the Jagdeo administration. This will not only create fodder for the Opposition Leader, but raise concerns by other workers how they too are likely to be treated. It is time to put out the industrial fires.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper)
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