Allow me to join our distinguished Chairman, in extending a hearty and sincere welcome to you on the occasion of the Opening Session of our Union’s 19th Delegates’ Congress. Our Congress is being held under the theme “Advancing Social Development through Greater Workers’ Democracy.”
Comrades, today we face many challenges locally, despite the strides and achievements we have made. We recall immediately following our last Congress, National and Regional Elections were held. The people’s will insisted that the incumbent PPP/Civic be returned to office to continue the work of national development and, since, there were indeed several things we can be proud of.
In these past three years, we can boast of a spanking new cricket stadium which hosted Super Eight matches of the ICC World Cup in 2007; we then proved ourselves as an international conference venue – replete with adequate accommodation and Conference Centres – by hosting the Rio Summit of Latin American Heads, the Commonwealth Finance Ministers Conferences and Carifesta Ten.
The end of last year, saw a Berbician National Dream come true – the Berbice River Bridge; the UN Tribunal on the Law of the Sea awarding Guyana the confirmation that the disputed portion of the Corentyne River was indeed ours! And just a fortnight ago, the Brazil-Guyana Takutu Bridge was opened to traffic. We also appreciate the several pieces of legislations from Parliament which are largely positive and progressive and aimed at addressing relevant issues that have emerged in our midst.
These recent additions to our development only serve to increase our expectations for more and greater achievements. Such is the human factor; such is the way of politics; continuous growth and development is a constant of social life.
However, our successes cannot overshadow the many challenges still around us. The tasks before our government and people are manifold with quite a bit of range too. They concern village life, maintenance works in the regions, greater firmness in dealing with industrialization, protection and safeguarding of the peasant, small scale agriculture which has sustained us for hundreds of years and protection of our national assets and resources from predators both foreign and local.
At the working class level, a satisfactory and adequate wage level still eludes the majority of workers. There is a need to address the growing income inequality and regular employment, especially in the sugar industry, which, remains a distant goal. Conditions of work, while improving, do so, at snail’s pace; in some instances there are attempts to even reverse gains already made. Workers’ pensions must not be forgotten either. In today’s circumstances, what is received by several categories can only be described as a pittance and needs to be lifted to conditions enjoyed by other higher categories of wage earners.
Workers play a key and crucial role in running and making industries viable and profitable. Yet, for very many, their lot falls short in keeping with their role. In this context, the private and state sectors must make adjustments for workers to have a bigger voice in the decision-making process.
Added to these challenges which need to be addressed nationally, there are other issues of concern which may impact on our nation’s well-being and its future prospects. We must always focus on the need to strengthen national unity; we need to examine the question of alienation in society and work-out measures for greater involvement of the citizens in all aspects of life. We need to initiate discussions and debates on the directions we are treading and what is the vision for our country. We need to staunch the drain of our human resources – the country’s most precious asset. We must break-out of the dependency syndrome, difficult as that is proving. And, there are other tasks too.
Clearly, those who will take on the mantle of the nation’s political leadership at the next general and regional elections, have their tasks cut out for them. We are fully aware that the tasks before us will receive committed and principled leadership who will be guided by public service, the nation’s independence and interests as well as the people’s well-being and not self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. We are aware too that such leadership is called for at the various levels of the government structure, from the political leaders on the whole, from other social, economic and community organizations.
Word that Local Government has been delayed again is a disappointment and certainly not in keeping with our country’s democratic thrust. For much too long, we have had a delay in these elections which has affected, essentially work in our various communities. These elections have a direct bearing on our membership which is largely rural based and whose living conditions depend on these organs functioning and functioning properly.
GAWU, therefore, is peeved at such a delay considering the time that has elapsed in considering reform, the completion of the house to house registration and the vast sums expended.
Trade Union Unity
Comrades, unity among workers and their unions is also imperative especially if the working class is to confront the global challenges facing our country. It is with great concern that I note that the Guyana Trade Union Congress (GTUC) and the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG), have been unable to reconcile their differences, so far.
FITUG has been very supportive and co-operative to have the two bodies united. It has given full support to Sir Leroy Trotman, General Secretary of the powerful Barbados Workers Union (BWU), who acted as a mediator towards reuniting the movement; unfortunately, his efforts have not been fruitful. The mediation process faces one major stumbling block, the GTUC contends that it does not recognize the existence of FITUG, hence there can be no meeting with this body. The main actors of the GTUC remain vehement in their position.
This intransigence by the GTUC is unfortunate. It does not help in healing our divisions and does not strengthen the workers hand to take up successfully the struggles that life’s conditions have put on their doorsteps. In passing, allow me to note that the unions in FITUG represent 34,000 workers in strategic sectors of our economy, while those in the TUC represent merely 15,000.
Our Sugar Industry
Comrades, there was a time, not so long ago, when sugar was referred to as ‘King Sugar,’ owing to its strategic importance to our economy. Today the industry for all its trials remains the mainstay of the economy and plays no small role in Guyana’s social and economic development.
The industry, to this day, remains our country’s largest employer with over 20,000 workers. Further, there are 1,500 cane farmers who sell cane to the industry representing seven per cent of the Corporation’s total production. It has been estimated that around 125,000 persons rely on our thirty five billion dollars revenue earning sugar industry for their livelihoods, whether as Guysuco employees, private cane growers, suppliers or service providers, as well as their respective dependents. This is equivalent to a sixth of the population, a figure that underlines the central importance of the sugar industry in the economy and society of Guyana as a whole.
However, the performance of the industry since the great flood in 2005 has not been encouraging. The poor production last year of 226,267 tonnes of sugar was the lowest in eighteen (18) years. It must be noted that last year’s sugar production could have been significantly higher had the Skeldon factory been commissioned last August/September as indicated by Booker-Tate and had there been an adequate cane supply for the factory to perform at its rated capacity.
The poor performance of the industry cannot be delinked from Booker-Tate’s questionable management of the industry from 1990 to March, this year. Booker-Tate which took much for the credit of the recovery of the industry from its parlous state eighteen (18) years ago to a production of 325,317 tonnes in 2004 with production averaging 310,809 tonnes during the years 2001 – 2004, needs also to take responsibility and full blame for the state of the industry from 2005 when the industry’s production began to decline, reaching 226,267 tonnes in 2008 and averaging 249,594 tonnes between 2005 – 2008.
It is a case of mis-management, in the Union’s view, and it can be traced perhaps to the depletion of expertise within the industry’s former management contractor. The quality of expertise in the services of Booker-Tate, seemingly, began to decline for some years, particularly when the Company changed from a British to a South African entity.
It is recalled that a Commission of Inquiry appointed by the Minister of Agriculture, last October to examine the Field Operations of East Demerara Estates, found poor management of the cultivation which resulted in the low production seen at that Estate. The Report noted that “in some areas the Team was surprised to see some fields overgrown with bush rather than sugar cane” and “weeds were seen everywhere, including in drains, fields and dam beds in the post harvest areas.” The report also noted that land preparation “was observed to vary in quality with much substandard work being done” and that “overall management of the cane cultivation on this estate has been problematic.”
Guysuco alluded repeatedly to climate change, industrial action and worker-absenteeism as the reasons given, for the woes facing the industry over the past few years. Work stoppages and absenteeism are not new phenomena. Against a similar background, the industry produced an average of almost 311,000 tonnes in the years 2002-2004.
During the period, the industry also faced challenges from outside in the continuation of implementation of the thirty six per cent (36%) cut in the price for our sugar exported to the European Union (EU). The full cut which will be implemented in just under two (2) months will result in the industry losing approximately G$9B or twenty five per cent (25%) of its revenue. We also witnessed in September, 2007, the denunciation of the Sugar Protocol with the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, effective October 01, 2009 by the EU. In other words, from 1st October, this year, the Sugar Protocol after thirty four (34) years of providing preferential access to the EU market for imports of ACP sugar, will no longer exist. While the protocol no longer exists from October, this year, the EU sugar regime enters a Transitional Phase until October, 2015, at which time the arrangements made under the respective Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) will govern the trading of sugar.
Notwithstanding, it is heartening to note that the industry is currently receiving significant government support in overcoming its challenges. Reference is made to the recently completed state of the art factory and the current expansion at Skeldon and the new packaging plant to be constructed at Enmore. We express our appreciation for Government’s continued support and call on it to channel no less than seventy six per cent (76%) of the total compensation received from the European Union, to the sugar industry’s capital investment, noting that seventy six per cent (76%) of the measures outlined in the Guyana National Action Plan are sugar oriented.
I wish to emphasize that the sugar industry ought not to be seen only from a bottom line dollar position, but from a comprehensive, macro and holistic position of what it contributes to our nation. Just imagine if the Industry is to be done away with what will be its replacement to avoid the social consequences that will certainly attend its closure. The sugar industry remains an intrinsic component of the economy. Many developed and developing countries continue to maintain their vital agricultural industries through appropriate interventions and support. These interventions are not premised on solely narrow financial factors, but they also take into account economics generally and the social and national relevance of the industries.
Comrades, our Congress is meeting in times, as they say, that try men’s souls. A crisis lies at every turn and dangers lurk all around. The capitalist system is shaking at its foundations and its latest neo-liberal development model has lost its creditability. Many who preached the language of the free market ideology have now fallen silent. And, the apologists who still do so are having a hard time in convincing people that the discredited system, still, has the answers to the problems that affect tens of millions of workers from the developed and developing countries of world with few exceptions.
The world, at this time, is in the grips of the financial/economic crisis which emanated largely from the USA, the world’s sole superpower, the wealthiest and most powerful country in existence. We are seeing another side to globalization, which some people are so fond of respecting without bothering to examine the risks and weaknesses that that notion involved. Now, we are trapped. One way or another, countries will be affected. Economists, those who presented themselves as knowing it all, are scrambling to give explanations, making forecasts and predictions, offering justifications and trying to come up with solutions so often, one senses, they have contradicting views. Groups within the ruling class are even engaged in finger-pointing as to who are adopting or advocating socialist measures and solutions and who are still the genuine guardians of capitalism.
All of this would really be funny, if the crisis consequences are not so grave. As in all times and instances, whenever a crisis descends on a country the workers and their families are the first to suffer. Karl Marx pointed this out more than 150 years ago. We still see its occurrence in the form of this on-going crisis considered the worst since the Great Depression that lasted from 1929 to 1939. At the turn of the 19th Century, Lenin warned of the appearance of financial oligarchy whose greed and untrammeled expansion lies at the root of today’s world tragedy.
The financial/economic crisis has morphed with other major crises that threaten our planet’s existence and detrimental to world peace, to development and to the end of poverty which is bloated up by millions more joining the ranks of the poor, especially in the developing countries but increasing in the developed world also.
In addition to the capitalist economic problems which have left millions of our fellow workers jobless and homeless, there are other major problems confronting mankind.
We saw the horrors of a ‘food crisis’ that left peoples of some 30 countries hungry and in Haiti, we read about hunger driving people to bake cakes from mud to survive. There is the frightening problem of climate change and degradation of the environment and global warming that we are no strangers to. There is growing militarism, manifested in unjust wars and military occupation and untold destruction in Asia and Africa, threats to others, missile systems in Europe, expansion of NATO’s role and jurisdiction, other countries joining the nuclear club, resuscitation of AFRICOM, and the growth of military expenditure. We need to note that, military expenditure of the US increased by four per cent.
And, there is poverty; degrading and inhuman where it exists and hundreds of millions of the world’s peoples are strickened by it. The richest countries within the G-8 pay lip service to its existence; their promises, seemingly, just a public relations ploy, with literally crumbs actually spent in addressing it.
Indeed, comrades, the world we live is in bad shape. A deeper look bring us, unavoidably to the conclusion that capitalism/imperialism, its surrogates, its apologists is largely responsible for the state of affairs.
The hopes that the end of the Cold War nourished have been dashed. We do not want to experience another Cold War, but we firmly believe that there is a strong case for respect of the rules governing international relations and for a new global order. We subscribe to the view that an alternative world order is possible, indeed, necessary.
Even as we condemn those leaders who misled us into these dead-end avenues, even as we feel a sense of being betrayed by several world leaders; at the same time, we welcome the fight-back of millions of workers and resistance fighters from the USA itself, from Europe, from many developing countries. The spirit of resistance, struggles and solidarity have not been crushed.
The very fact that we are a workers organization, makes us understand and appreciate the just demands made by workers throughout the world. Essentially, their anxieties, tensions, hopes and dreams are similar to ours. We empathize and extend our solidarity in their struggles. Likewise, we must give encouragement to those leaders and government, particularly from Latin America who have shown the will and courage to follow a new path with policies that are benefitting the poor and working people. As Cuba, with its courageous leadership as an example and has earned our gratitude; as Cheddi Jagan, former Honorary President of GAWU, was exemplary in his advocacy and commitment to lofty principles; so too, we now recognize that leaders of similar stature have emerged on our continent who are showing fortitude, in standing by their peoples and countries interests, and facing all sorts of destabilization attempts for so doing. We see leaders like Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega and others as part of the fight back of today and forerunners of a new tomorrow. We wish them every success.
In these challenging times, we must not give in to complacency and despair. If anything characterizes the GAWU, it is its fighting spirit. It is the spirit that should infect other sectors of our working class. It is that spirit that is the best guarantee of a brighter and prosperous future.
Comrades, as I conclude my remarks, I would like to thank members and to commend leaders and activists of all the Branches of the Union for their support, contribution and commitment in making GAWU one of the most important pillars of the working class movement.
I look forward to the contributions by delegates’ during the Business Sessions of our Congress, particularly during the discussions on the General Council Report. Undoubtedly, as in the past, in the spirit of collective and democratic deliberations, I am sure the conclusions and decision will contribute to strengthening of our Union and hence a better and stronger worker organization as the struggles of tomorrow unfolds.
Long live GAWU
Long live the workers of Guyana
Long live Proletarian Internationalism