Reform or Downsizing of the Sugar Industry has left a Trail of Dislocation, Suffering and Despair

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COMMENTARY
By Dr. TARA SINGH

The by-passing of David Ramnaine for the position of Commissioner of Police; the seemingly one-sided Exxon contract; and the teachers’ strike have apparently thrown the sugar workers’ prolonged distress onto the margins of the current political discourse.

How quickly we tend to forget the negative impacts of callous political action and decisions! It seems that there is an implied belief by the governing coalition and others that the cause of the dismissed sugar workers as well as other laid-off government workers, is no longer a compelling story! In their view, the “storm” has subsided. Really!

We hold that certain industries like bauxite and sugar cannot be evaluated by cost benefit analysis alone. These industries encompass communities with a culture, a history, and a way of life which functions in a symbiotic relationship. You tamper with one, you destroy the others. But it’s not only those who worked on the sugar estates, but also those employed in the secondary sectors like transport, small businesses, banking, etc. that have also been suffering from the sugar estates’ closure.

The despair of sugar workers has increased at a time when it appears that their union, GAWU (Guyana Agriculture and General Workers’ Union), is not as militant as before. This view is probably reflected in GAWU’s non-productive negotiations with the government on the closure of the 4 sugar estates. That outcome was somewhat disappointing as GAWU has had a distinguished record of service for several decades.
However, over the past 4 years in particular its militancy seems to have weakended. Or, is it not? One would recall, for example, the 135 days’ strike that was initiated by GAWU in 1977 in protest against the sugar levy being deducted from gross income rather than from the after tax profits of GUYSUCO. GAWU claimed that GUYSUCO owed the workers a total of $(US) 85 million. It has been estimated that the sugar tax levy at $(G) 92 billion over the period 1976-2000 was used to prop up other sectors of the economy. To claim now that GUYSUCO is indebted by $(G) 82 billion as the reason for sugar estate closure, when sugar’s massive contribution ($(G) 92 billion) to other sectors has been ignored and when most of the money is owed to the government (GRA) and in long term debts, is a pretext for harsh political action.

Perhaps the last example of GAWU’s militancy was demonstrated in 2012 when the PNC and AFC opposition threatened to cut the subsidy for sugar. In response, GAWU organized huge protests outside of the Parliament building, and the Opposition forces had to give in to its demand not to cut the sugar subsidy. Beyond that, there has been no recent sign of militancy! Not even the severance package to which workers are entitled by law was that arrangement worked out properly at the negotiations between GAWU and the government! The deadline set to pay the second portion of sugar workers’ severance has passed (July 2018) and the government now states that payment will be made before year end.

Had GAWU retained its traditional type of militancy (e.g., mobilizing a national sugar workers strike), it would have probably been able to achieve reasonable results from its negotiations with government. Experience has shown that the periodic demonstrations and picketing exercises have not had any appeal to the coalition government. The impact of a national strike would have been different, but would have made a mark.
Valuable lessons (such as not to succumb to government’s bullish and dictatorial impulses) could be drawn from the teachers’ strike of September 2018, as well as from GAWU’s own history. But what concerns most of us is the economic and social plight of the dismissed sugar and other workers. More than anything else, we know that having a job gives a person self-esteem within his/her family and among peers. Not having a job in one’s productive life runs counter to his/her established cultural values and self-worth.

“Just think about this! You are the head of your household/family that lives in the sugar belt. You have to provide and take care of your wife and children. You have grown up and encultured into an industry where your fore-parents had worked as indentured immigrants and where their descendants, including you, have worked as non-indentured (free) labor. You knew no other industry but sugar which provided your only regular source of income. Then suddenly, you are being told that the industry for which you and your fore-parents had toiled tirelessly to sustain and to save, would close a number of its branches (sugar estates) because the government says that it can no longer subsidize these. And that message of closure came to pass and it struck you like a ton of bricks, not to mention the despair that enveloped your family. In a few weeks hence, the sugar estate that has been deeply interwoven with your life and that of family members, would close and with it your job has become a casualty.”

“How could you tell your wife and children that you can no longer provide for their material well-being? How could you face them? Growing up with positive attitudes and values towards work, wouldn’t you feel that you are less of a person? Wouldn’t you feel socially and economically inadequate? How could you fight your despondency and dejection?” These are the types of challenges that are being played out within numerous families at Wales and other sugar estates.

The pressures have been so intense that one sugar worker at Wales and another one at Rosehall committed suicide. It has been predicted that many social problems like crime, alcoholism and broken families would intensify. And had it not been for the assistance of NGOs and other groups, including relatives, the personal and physical dislocation would have been astronomical.

The problems of sugar workers could have been mitigated if they were provided with alternative sources of employment, as promised by the government. One reason for the administration’s failure to act decisively was directly due to their unwillingness to conduct a social and economic impact study (SEIS) before sugar estates’ closure.
Financial analyst Sase Singh indicated that in February 2016, Agriculture Minister Noel Holder said that sugar estate closure was the “beginning of a process to resuscitate the sugar industry.” Holder assured the country that “there are plans in place to cushion the impact of this decision.” How realistic was this, given the absence of a SEIS! In May 2016, Holder outlined plans to use Wales to “rebrand and revitalize the sugar industry,” by converting Wales into a “national processor of dairy products, fruit juices, and rice production.” No such plans have been implemented and Holder, as Agriculture Minister, has now distanced himself from the sugar issues. Sase also stated: “The entire West Bank Demerara area was rendered into an economic dead zone.”

The government promises continue to flow. During the past week at a GAWU forum, Colvin Heath-London, head of the Special Purpose Unit (SPU) stated that they plan to allocate lands to sugar workers, as well as set up two co-generation plants, one at Albion and the other at Uitvlugt, plus they plan to develop value-added products. Colvin hopes that by February 2019 investor(s) will own and operate at least one sugar estate. Asking workers to “keep the faith,” Colvin proclaimed that they “are working assiduously in reducing and cushioning the pain of the sugar workers through economic and social ventures.” Keeping faith cannot provide food on the table for the impoverished workers. We hope that his statement was not another attempt to placate sugar workers with rhetorical flourishes and political platitudes!

While many people believe that the closure of the 4 sugar estates is a signal of the beginning of a process to close down the entire sugar industry, President David Granger said that the closure of 4 estates was part of the government’s efforts to reform the industry and removing inefficiencies. He said that there is a future for the sugar industry and that with the rationalization of operations at the larger factories (Albion, Blairmont and Uitvlugt), the production target of 150 tonnes could be realized. But the President has once again failed to address the major concerns of the dismissed sugar and other workers other than saying that the former workers (sugar) will receive the remaining 50% of their severance pay by the end of the year.

The problem is that this government has been making so many promises and has not been fulfilling most of them. At least Colvin paints a fair picture on the SPU’s planned activities. Let’s see how and when they will implement these initiatives! We note that sugar workers are resilient and once they are given reasonable incentive(s), they could break out of their distress and impoverishment and continue to contribute towards the country’s development.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN. 

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