Displaced Sugar Workers Must be Treated with Respect!
By Dr. Tara Singh
Just think about it! You are a displaced sugar worker. This is the only industry that you have known. You were not trained to work elsewhere. You know that your fore-parents came as either slave or indentured laborer to work on sugar plantations. You know that sugar has been the driving force for the economy for over one and half century. Then your world came tumbling down: you receive a termination slip. Disoriented, you are being told that sugar is no longer profitable. Your sugar estate will be closed shortly. You were not informed of any alternative job(s), except the vague promise of the grant of lands. You are still struggling to get your API (Annual Production Incentive) and increase in wages promised by the government. You have not yet received your severance package. Why it took so long for the government to work this out? You have a family of 4 (yourself, wife, and 2 children). How could you face them? What could you tell them? What’s going through your mind?
You would feel helpless, even useless! You feel that you have let down your family. You would ask “what kind of a person who can’t support his family?” These and other feelings will not only continue to overwhelm but also torment you. It would puncture your pride, dent your self-image, and destroy your hope. And without hope, the world becomes an illusion.
Recognizing the adverse impact of sugar estates closure on the lives of displaced sugar workers, and wanting to ease their stress, my organization NYGM (New York Guyana Medical and Humanitarian Mission) offered assistance principally in the form of food hampers to displaced sugar workers at Wales, Guyana. We express our appreciation to NYGM Coordinator Dr Anila Ramphal, NYGM Executive Ms Jean Ramdeo, and Pt Vikas Ramkissoon and his Guyana team. We will next focus our relief efforts at the Rose Hall, Enmore and Skeldon sugar estates.
Ever since the coalition government announced the closure of Wales’s sugar estate to take effect in December 2016, to be followed by closures of Rose Hall, Enmore and Skeldon sugar estates in December 2017, anxiety and tension within the sugar belt have risen sharply. Sugar workers’ pessimism has intensified once they learn that closures were not based on the government first conducting an “Economic and Social Impact” study. Also, the government rejected their own COI (Commission of Inquiry) recommendation to delay those closures. With no or poor prospect for alternative employment, darkness has begun to envelope the world of sugar workers who could not see any light returning soon.
We have watched how picketing exercises, demonstrations, pleadings, writing of letters and commentaries in support of the displaced sugar workers, have fallen by the way side. The much touted sugar diversification plan is just that, a plan. In a situation where over 7,000 sugar workers (accounting for over 30,000 family members) would become unemployed, it’s more than reasonable to expect the government to come to their immediate assistance. Well, that is, if the government is compassionate!
The government seems to have no viable plan for (i) diversification and/or and restructuring for sugar estates; (ii) rendering financial support to sugar workers; (iii) to negotiate in good faith with sugar workers’ unions; (iv) paying sugar workers’ severance, their API (annual production bonus) and the coalition’s promise of wage increase.
Sugar workers did not cause the industry to lose money. It was the drop in the world market prices and the removal of the European subsidies in 2011, as well as, competition from artificial sweeteners, beet sugar, and high fructose corn syrup. While these were playing out in the world market, GUYSUCO failed to respond to those signals by adjusting its productive force to meet this new reality. Management’s lack of vision and incompetence also contributed greatly to the financial woes of the sugar industry.
Experts say that there are tremendous benefits to be derived from diversification of the sugar industry, like co-generation of electricity. Unfortunately, these and other benefits were never given a chance to materialize. Both the PPP and PNC-dominated governments have failed to address diversification and re-structuring of the sugar industry. The compassion in this coalition government to guide these efforts is not there. So, what’s the alternative? Not much, other than appeal to the wider Guyanese community, including the diaspora, and to influence international public opinion.
While we (NGOs) may not be able to influence government policy, we can reach out to displaced sugar workers, as we had done for flood victims in the 2000s, by providing them with some form of relief. While this may be regarded as a “stop gap” measure, NGOs’ assistance has never been intended as a substitute for the government’s responsibility in this area. We want to make it pellucid that it’s the government which is responsible for poverty reduction and not NGOs. It’s the government’s responsibility to alleviate poverty and social distress, especially in deprived/disadvantaged neighborhoods. NGOs could only fill some of the gaps.
Whatever assistance NGOs and other segments of civil society offer, they are also sending a powerful message to displaced sugar workers that they are not alone, and that there are compassionate people out there that identify with their cause, and are prepared to help to mitigate their suffering in whatever way possible.
It’s a national disgrace that, for mainly political reasons, the sugar workers are penalized by the government. The same situation had played out in Trinidad and Tobago where the government closed the sugar company Caroni (1975) Ltd in July 2003, and thus throwing over 9,000 sugar workers plus even a greater number of private cane farmers on the breadline. Politics played a decisive role there, and so is the case of Guyana.
The pressure to withstand the shock of labor terminations is so intense that two sugar workers have recently committed suicide within one week. Both of their employment was terminated. One had been attached to the Rose Hall estate and one at the Wales estate. In reaction, the government announced a Resiliency Program to address the psycho-social problems of displaced sugar workers. Why two people had to die before the government rush to set up this program? The writing was always on the wall. A pro-active response would probably have been productive. Anyway, while the Resiliency Program may help ease the sugar workers’ and their community’s distress, it would not solve their problems. We cannot treat the symptoms of a problem, and hope that the problem would go away. We have to treat the root cause of the problem, which is economic in nature. If the economic problem is solved (by creating jobs for them), much of the social distress that workers endure would disappear.
We commend those NGOs, such as GSM (Guyanese Solidarity Movement), SDGHM (Shri Devi Global Humanitarian Mission) and other NGOs (both local and international) that have rendered assistance to the displaced sugar workers and their respective communities. It’s essential that these organizations and others continue to assist until the government can resolve this massive problem; hopefully sooner than later.
DR. TARA SINGH IS AN INDEPENDENT COLUMNIST. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.