By Leonard Gildarie
We are in the month of February. General and Regional Elections are a mere month away. Do we really understand how crucial the elections are?
At this time, aside from the many public meetings and rallies being held, there are two things happening, which to my mind will continue to reverberate beyond the elections.
Oil and Rusal. Yes, Rusal.
Frankly, Rusal’s behavior is tantamount to a foreign country invading us and daring the army to do something, while it blatantly occupies a piece a land, and plant and mine on it, taking away the produce and gold without giving us what is rightfully due.
We have to revisit how Rusal came before we even begin to understand what is happening here.
In the 2000s, the then administration of the People’s Progressive Party/Civic was left holding onto the bauxite companies in Region 10 after investors left.
For a while, the National Industrial and Commercial Investments Limited (NICIL), a state-owned company which manages assets of the people of Guyana, was left running the operations at Aroaima and Kwakwani.
Rusal, a Russian-owned bauxite company that is also one of the biggest of its kind in the world, was wooed, and they came. From what I am told, the company was supposed to invest and run the operations.
It must be stressed, based on what the union disclosed, that Rusal’s entrance was to an operation that was a going concern.
It not only took over the plants, but homes for workers, and even a majestic Queenstown property, a temporary home to former president Bharrat Jagdeo, as its city headquarters.
In essence, Rusal was given a jumpstart, a sweetheart deal if you will.
To help it along, the then government granted waivers on its fuel, tax breaks and even duty free concessions for equipment, like heavy duty trucks and excavators.
In 2009, a few years after starting operations, and with excess of 300 employees, Rusal clashed with workers, firing over 50 of them for downing tools in demand for better conditions.
Among the workers were supervisors and union representatives.
The union and workers and civil society protested the labour ministry and other places in an attempt to put the spotlight on the plight of the workers. All to no avail.
It appeared Rusal was being protected.
Throughout it all, Rusal at times refused to turn up at meetings with labour officials.
One year ago, 90-plus workers were fired for taking strike action.
For one month, Guyana was riveted as workers, in defiance, blocked the Berbice River, and camped out at the Aroaima area, refusing orders from the Russian management to remove. The situation forced the labour and other officials, including two ministers, to visit the area. A peace was brokered with the commitment to deal with issues of wages and other conditions.
In January of this year, one year later, the company is at it again. It sent home 142 workers and again angry workers blocked the river. Recently again, another large batch was told their services are terminated.
The company’s excuse this time is that the Guyana Revenue Authority has blocked their duty-free fuel.
Government denied the claims and Rusal said it is willing to take back the workers once they unblock the Berbice River, which is used to transport the mined bauxite ore.
On Friday, Commissioner-General of the GRA, Godfrey Statia, made a startling revelation. He said he sent in auditors and the company threatened to close shop unless the auditors leave.
Are we for real? As we speak, Rusal has dismantled and removed a number of heavy duty equipment to New Amsterdam, with the apparent intention to ship them out.
This would be highly unacceptable, as the equipment came here duty-free. We must collect our taxes, and in any case Rusal must make clear its true intentions.
We are calling their bluff.
It has been revealed that since coming here more than a dozen years ago, Rusal has not paid the Government of Guyana any dividends for the 10 percent stake that we have in the company. Rather, shockingly, it claimed it is making no profits. The reality was that Rusal was selling to one of its sister companies, and there were suspicions that the price was deliberately kept low.
We have no confirmation, as there appears to be no interest on the part of Guyana.
Throughout its stay here, Rusal has continuously shipped out bauxite by the boatloads. It has refused time and again to attend meetings with the labour department and the union.
Throughout it all, it has been working.
Let me say this…no company in the world operates for more than a decade without making a profit. It is either they “proppa like Guyana” or we are being robbed.
It is no secret that Rusal has a sordid history, in Africa and other places, when it comes to labour relations.
Which brings us to the other point… why were our regulators sitting on their hands?
We have labour, the tax man, and of course, the shareholders’ representative…the NICIL.
We also have a board member sitting on the local company.
Somehow, all three entities failed in their duties. The conclusions are troubling.
Were the regulators deliberately not doing their jobs because of bribes or were there other reasons?
It is inconceivable that we can sit by for more than 12 years and show no interest in collecting our dividends.
Our first priority is ensuring we get a good deal from an investor that comes here.
We waived billions of dollars in taxes for concessions, including on fuel and equipment.
We gave them an operation that was a going concern. In essence, it was a sweetheart deal.
Today, our pride should be smarting. We have been slapped several times by the gloves of Rusal, and our indignation should be made known.
Let me say very clearly: the current situation with Rusal is intolerable. I have gone to the sites in Berbice and seen the tough conditions of the men and women who work there.
I ache for them. They are decent men and women.
Rusal has disrespected Guyana. It is nothing else but “eye-pass” and our leaders are doing little or nothing.
(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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