Sugar Unions oppose Wales closure

Our Unions – the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU), the National Association of Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Employees (NAACIE), and the Guyana Labour Union (GLU) – all representing workers in the sugar industry hereby register our strong opposition and total disagreement with the decision to close the Wales Sugar Estate at the end of the second crop this year (2016).

The implementation of such a decision will be yet another blow to workers of the sugar industry. This measure will certainly put hundreds of workers on the breadline and drive very many into impoverishment. It is our considered view that apart from the painful effects on those workers directly affected; this issue also has far-reaching economic and social implications.

Given the serious consequences attendant to the closure and that the first steps towards closure have and are being taken, we express our disappointment that Member of Parliament, Komal Chand of GAWU, could not have this matter debated in the National Assembly as he sought to do at its Session on (Thursday), January 21, 2016. We are of the view that since the closure process has begun, now is the best time for it to be raised in fora like our National Assembly so that a clear mistake can be corrected and another wrong to the workers and others be prevented.

The decision to close Wales came as a surprise to us as it is not in keeping with the relevant recommendation of the Sugar Commission of Inquiry (CoI) which pointedly saw the need for a study which should guide any closure decision. It also varies from the reported sentiments coming from President Granger, Prime Minister Nagamootoo and Minister Holder references of which have been previously stated by the GAWU. Other voices – from our Unions, individuals and politicians – have also cautioned about closure. Bearing these factors in mind, we find the decision to close Wales Estate rather hasty and indeed strange.

At a meeting on (Wednesday) January 20, 2016 summoned by the Guyana Sugar Corporation Inc (GuySuCo) and attended by GAWU and NAACIE, the delegation representing the management and also, apparently, GuySuCo’s Board, informed the Unions that a decision has been made to effect the closure of Wales Estate. While we do not want to be disrespectful to the delegation sent to bring the disturbing information to us, nevertheless, we feel constrained to observe that they were unable to provide answers germane to the issue. This exercise only served to fuel the feeling that we and the Guyanese public are not getting the full story surrounding this clearly rash decision, uninformed by any credible study.

The sugar estates, where they existed, and even today, remain a hub whereby much of rural social and economic life revolves. Closure, therefore, can only result in the lives of more than the workers and their families being affected. Indeed, in the case of Wales, we are of the considered view that workers, cane farmers, the small businesses and various communities of the West Bank of Demerara will be negatively impacted.

From the January 20, 2016 meeting with GuySuCo’s personnel, GAWU and NAACIE were informed also that the intention was to absorb some of the workers at Uitvlugt Estate, others to be made redundant and some others to be given jobs in a business venture which they could not tell us about. Again, we formed the view that the hazy ideas given indicators that the matter was not fully thought out. We also believe that such hazy ideas, in all likelihood, cannot be successfully effected. Clearly, there is no worthwhile plan at this time. But, if they have a plan then let GuySuCo and the Government make it public. People’s lives, their future and investments are now threatened with the prospect of full closure in a matter of months.

From statements made, it is clear that the Government made a suicidal decision to close Wales Estate even though apparently there is no clear direction to follow regarding the utilization of the lands and the dislocation of hundreds of employees as well as other related questions. The decision is clearly slipshod and hasty, something President Granger promised not to do according to the November 01, 2015 Guyana Chronicle.

We are somehow bewildered by Minister Holder who was reported in the Stabroek News as saying that the decision for closure was made by GuySuCo and was contained in the Corporation’s 2016 Budget and Action Plan which was completed last year (2015). This is at odds with what GuySuCo said at its January 20, 2016 meeting with GAWU and NAACIE. The Corporation told the Unions that the decision was taken recently by the GuySuCo Board. Moreover, if the decision was made since 2015 by the Board and Management, then two (2) senior GuySuCo officials – its Chairman and its CEO – who participated fully in the work of the CoI, did not see the wisdom of communicating the decision to the Commission as the CoI spoke to the operation of seven (7) estates and its considerations and projections have been based on that premise. Well! Well! It seems that there was no coordination among the several players in this painful story.

That aside, another interesting aspect to note is that the Estate as recent as two (2) weeks ago was tilling land to be planted. Certainly, had the Estate been identified for closure then such expenditure ought not to have taken place. We are aware that during last year, GuySuCo was making efforts to revitalize the Estate and to that end made a number of investments in this regard including the installation of a new drainage pump, the rehabilitation of some areas of the estate’s internal roads, de-silting of kokers, rebuilding of some dams, excavation of some drainage trenches, repairs to the factory’s revetment, etc. Goodness, for GuySuCo, closure is a very costly pursuit.

The decision to close Wales Estate is turning on to a wrong path. It can very well affect the progress of the industry noted over the last year in terms of production. To some extent, it will surely  affect also the country’s treasury. It has grave implications for the workers, the residents, several communities, and Region Three (3). The Government must now act wisely, sensibly and immediately to undo its decision for the consequences are too dire.

We, the Unions operating in the industry urge the authorities, the Corporation and the Government not to go this way of closure but instead consider a workable plan geared to make the Estate overcome its present difficulties, which, we are sure, can be done.

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