Allow me to join the Chairman in welcoming you to this annual event – this year it is the observance of the 63rd Anniversary of the slaying of the Enmore Martyrs. Like in previous years, this day we gather to pay our homage and respect to the fallen Enmore Martyrs – Lallabagee Kissoon, Surujballi called Dookie, Harry, Rambarran and Lall called Pooran. Their martyrdom telegraphed throughout Guyana, the Caribbean and beyond, the abominable working conditions which the foreign sugar barons maintained in the sugar industry over one hundred (100) years after the abolition of slavery and also over one hundred (100) years after the commencement of East Indian indentureship. The martyrs were gunned down because they decided to demand through strike and protest, changes to the abominable working and living conditions which they were forced to endure for decades. Like in previous confrontations on other estates, the plantocracy quickly resorted to brutal suppression, showing no regard to lives in order to protect their profits, their domination and as a warning to other workers who would want to struggle to better their lives and living conditions.
To remind you, the shooting of the strikers in 1948 was not an isolated event in the history of sugar workers’ resistance. They were sugar strikes and protests in 1869, 1872, 1873, 1876, 1879, 1888, 1894, 1896, 1899, 1903, 1905, 1913, 1914, 1924 and 1939. In every case the response of the foreign owners of the plantations and colonial police was brutal, repressive and violent. However, the blood-letting at Enmore in 1948, did not go in vain. Our five fallen comrades, not forgetting the scores who were injured, not only brought some positive changes to the sugar industry but they helped to strengthen the resolve of a new group of political leaders, headed by our outstanding leader, Dr Cheddi Jagan who was beginning to challenge colonial domination in our country. At the gravesite of the Enmore Martyrs, he made the solemn pledge to dedicate his life to the struggle to free the Guyanese people from bondage and exploitation. Until his death, Comrade Cheddi Jagan remained faithful to that pledge. He fought on heroically in and out of Parliament and never compromised his principles nor turned his back on the working people of Guyana.
It turned out that the death of the Enmore Five, comrades and friends, was an awakening call in many quarters and especially to workers in other sectors. Cde Cheddi saw to that. Cde Janet Jagan, former President of Guyana opined that the death of the five martyrs sent a “thunderbolt” through the society, invigorating the liberation struggle which followed. Indeed the formation of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) within two (2) years since the Enmore Five were gunned down and following its forerunner the Political Affairs Committee (PAC), became the vehicle which guided and led the struggles in Guyana since 1950 for freedom and democracy and workers’ rights.
Many have pointed out already that the struggle of the Guyanese people makes a major part of Guyana’s history. And, in that history, several chapters would have been devoted to the struggles of the sugar workers. Their struggles not only spanned centuries but particularly after 1948, the sugar workers became increasingly active in political struggles in the country. The brutal repression of 1948, did not daunt the workers nor dampen their spirit. Indeed, militancy in the industry grew and political awareness and activities expanded.
Sugar workers’ right to be represented by a Union of their choice, one of the objectives of the Enmore strike, was won in 1976, almost three (3) decades after the gunning down of the Enmore Five. Sugar workers, under the aegis of GAWU, have taken part, along with other working people in the struggles for political independence, they championed the nationalization of the sugar industry and when the Government nationalized it on May 26, 1976, they welcomed and supported that act; they stood up and fought for the restoration of democratic elections which triumphed with the October, 1992 elections. These struggles took place side by side with other struggles to improve wages and working conditions throughout the industry and for other workers.
But from the heroic example of the Enmore Five, this generation of workers must draw a lesson, still applicable in our day. That lesson is found in other struggles and all countries. It is the poor and oppressed and exploited that must make their demands, stand up and fight for their just dues and rights.
Life teaches that there will always arise those who, whether through directions or on their own, will seek to undermine the workers and their organisations. There will be those who will try to hoodwink us that they care, while seeking to plunge a dagger in our backs. There will be those who will give us a thin slice of the cake while others grow fat from their share. We, as workers, cannot drop our guard. To do so, will be to our peril.
GAWU urges this vigilance based on our experience in recent times. Mainly, I refer to the threat last December to derecognize GAWU. We will recall that the blood of the Enmore Martyrs was spilled in their quest for the recognition of GAWU’s forerunner – the Guiana Industrial Workers Union (GIWU). On 16th December, 2010 in an unprecedented and outrageous act, the Guyana Sugar Corporation (Guysuco) sent to GAWU, after working hours, a letter which reads in part “The Corporation wishes to inform you that it is considering to terminate the Recognition and Avoidance and Settlement of Disputes (Agreement) dated 27th February, 1976 that currently subsists between your Union and the Corporation”. We heard that the letter was sent because the Corporation had been uncomfortable with the Union’s forthright representation on issues like pay rise, Annual Production Incentive (API), the upholding of the conditions set out in the Union/Guysuco Collective Labour Agreement, etc.
The threat to derecognize GAWU astounded us in the Union and beyond. The five martyrized workers must have been turning in their graves. Dr N.K. Gopaul, head of Guysuco’s Board said it was a tactic deployed by the Board and the Management. But then it is known Guysuco did not hold a Board Meeting on the matter. The Minister of Agriculture and the Minister of Labour who have responsibility relating to the sugar industry and industrial relations matters respectively informed the Union that they had no involvement in the authorship of the letter. The President on his return to Guyana from Brazil on the evening of December 17, 2010 immediately distanced himself from the letter of the State Corporation.
I wish to recall what I said last May Day “The Union is puzzled that an attempt, to what, in effect, would have amounted to sabotage of the industry, that nothing is being done to expose and strongly discipline the culprit or culprits who may be guilty. This we find to be very interesting and inaction may tell its own tale.
The GAWU wants to believe that the present administration will not condone that threat. Thus, in a situation of inaction by Guysuco, the GAWU is suggesting that the President considers intervening in this matter.”
At this forum I wish to call on all trade unions to be relentless in their position and their solidarity support must be automatic whenever there is the derecognition of a union or a threat to derecognize a union outside the stipulations of the law. Certainly, had the threat to derecognize GAWU not been rebuffed expeditiously and the threatened retaliatory actions by the workers were not pronounced and had the Union gone meekly to “seek clarification” as opined by the Head of Guysuco’s Board as soon as the Union pursues any significant matter not to the Corporation liking there would have been the derecognition of the Union since the Corporation would have become emboldened with its derecognition threat.
Cut and Load System
Comrades, speaking about the recognition of GAWU, I wish to recall also that the introduction of the “cut and load” system was a fundamental issue which perpetuated the Enmore Strike in 1948. Today, the Guyana Sugar Corporation (Guysuco) is advancing the introduction of Bell Loaders within the industry. These machines are transporting harvested canes from the fields to punts. So the days of the controversial cut and load system are numbered.
Comrades, it is heartening to see that sugar production for this crop is at 106,286 tonnes this morning of the targeted 138,791 tonnes with three (3) estates still in operation. It is the highest first crop production for the past six (6) years noting that in the years 2002, 2003 and 2004, production was 128,699 tonnes, 127,961 tonnes and 127,610 tonnes respectively. At the end of the second crop this year, the industry has targeted itself to produce 298,879 tonnes. The achievement of this year’s target is basically dependent on adequate canes in the fields and the ability of the Skeldon factory to crush the canes reaped at an acceptable tonnes cane to tonne sugar ratio.
We are delighted to see on board the US$12M Enmore Packaging Plant which was commissioned last May. It is capable, we are advised, to package 40,000 tonnes of value-added sugar per year. The Corporation needs to identify the time-line when such level of production would be realized. The Corporation is receiving from its current production of value added sugar at Blairmont Estate about 45 per cent more than the price it receives for its raw sugar.
Comrades, the Corporation needs to be forthright with sugar workers and the public, with respect to the status of the new state-of-the-art Skeldon Factory which has been commissioned two and a half years ago. Workers need to know clearly, what are the defects inhibiting the factory’s performance, the cost to fix them and the time-frame to ensure that the factory’s performance is in keeping with its design.
Higher Rate of Pay
I need to lament the non-implementation of a five per cent rise in the rate of pay of sugar workers from January 01, 2011. Workers in the public and private sectors got new rates of pay this year based on their increase in pay last year. While sugar workers got a five (5) per cent increase in pay they are still paid at their 2009 rates-of-pay. It is most discriminatory to treat the nation’s sugar workers so disrespectfully. Sugar workers are becoming incensed at the procrastination. They would not like to see the delay last beyond June 30, 2011.
While the five (5) per cent additional rate-of-pay issue ought to be urgently addressed, we are pleased finally that the retrenched workers of Diamond Estate will receive their severance pay cheques on (Sunday) June 19, 2011 commencing from 10:00am. This assurance was given to the Union this morning. We wish to advise the workers to save their entitlements and carefully utilize same in productive endeavors. The Minister of Agriculture has given the assurance that the Diamond workers who wish to take up fresh employment at LBI Estate would be welcome to do so. We wish to advise workers do not choose to be unemployed since they have the option to continue to work in the industry.
Lastly on sugar, the wild and irresponsible talk and call for the privatization of the industry will not be kindly accepted by the thousands of sugar workers and the small holding cane farmers of our country. The tentacles of the industry reach into every facet of lives of the people of our country. The industry’s importance to the nation should not be underestimated. Its network of drainage and irrigation services is not restricted to providing fresh water to and draining Guysuco’s cultivation. Its Port Mourant Training Centre graduating young and skilled workers for the nation is second to none in the Caribbean. Its community centres and playgrounds reach out to all. It is a major and net foreign exchange earner. These are only some of the benefits which the sugar industry is making possible. If a private company can run the industry efficiently and make it sustainable why can’t we? We must resist privatization of sugar. Let us not go back to the colonial-type of relationship. Let us not entrap our people and country to a programme that can only serve capitalism and not the working people.
Comrades in the sentiments of my concluding section of my address last year I wish to end this year’s presentation.
Comrades, as we celebrate and mark the Enmore Martyrs Day, we must also focus on the era in which we are living today. It is an era that is marked by economic crises, wars, ecological degradation and erratic climate behavior, growing poverty and constant assaults on the working-class throughout the world.
We live in the era where neo-liberalism holds sway – a model of capitalism that emphasizes privatization, transfer of state assets to private individuals, plunder of resources, assault on workers’ and so on. It is a model which is at the root of the growing poverty world-wide and we must always be mindful that ruling elites will not want to give up their privileges or their plundering and greedy ways. Workers must remain in these situations alert, united and organized.
It is in this context also, that we see the significance of the Enmore Martyrs. They stood up against injustice, they fought for a fair deal; they demanded better conditions in their work, in their lives and for their families’ future.
In Europe today, we see similar struggles going on and intensifying against the neo-liberal brand of capitlism. We are also seeing it rejected in several countries in Latin America.
In our times, the Enmore Martyrs are even more relevant. This enduring message we should not forget. The working class must be always vigilant, militant, organizationally strong and united and must raise the banner of solidarity always.
Long Live Enmore Martyrs!
Long Live Our Ongoing Struggles!
Fight on for further victories!