Comrade Speaker, I rise to make my contribution to the 2016 National Budget. Between the previous Budget presentation, and this one, there has been a short time-span. Never-the-less, during this time several matters worthy of note took place domestically and internationally.
With regards to international developments, economic experts tell us that 2016 will be yet another year of weak economic performance globally, with only a few countries doing well. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has predicted that tens of millions will swell the unemployed numbers. A study by Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (Oxfam) has revealed that inequality has grown over the last year thus bringing into sharp focus the divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. Expectedly, the ranks of the poor will increase and, at the same time, we are seeing that the ruling elite of many developed countries are placing austerity burdens on the backs of workers, students, pensioners and farmers. Alongside such economic deterioration, there are unjust wars, violent conflicts, a new emphasis on militarism, various animosities among people are being promoted and nuclear conflagration is today threatening humanity.
But, Comrade Speaker, there is also a silver lining that has appeared. From, the developed countries to the developing ones, a new activism has emerged. In their millions, workers, students, women, farmers and the oppressed are fighting back. And, hopefully, such militancy will result in a world order that will be based on such values as peace, progress and prosperity.
At the domestic level, Comrade Speaker, these recent months have been marked by a high level of despondency by a major section of our workforce. I refer to the workers, field, factory, clerical and other segments of the working population within the sugar industry.
Comrade Speaker, in this second National Budget of the APNU/AFC Coalition Government expectations that workers generally will be better off, have been dashed. The silence about the plight of workers in the sugar industry tells its own story. It’s a sad story. Although, on page seven (7) of the Budget presentation the Finance Minister stated:- “the sugar industry returned a creditable performance, in 2015, with production growing by 6.9 percent to 231,145 metric tonnes. Though this level of production is still below the average achieved in the previous decade, the industry is showing encouraging signs of recovery. This, no doubt, can be attributed to new management and the measures taken to increase efficiency and productivity.”
Without belabouring the point, Comrade Speaker, I need to emphasise what is already known that in productive enterprises, it is the workers who are the key and decisive force to ensure encouraging levels of performance and production. Yet, Comrade Speaker, for this increased production referred to by the Minister in his address, the workers of the sugar industry, the only section of the State’s employees, received nothing, or zero, in terms of wage adjustment in 2015. It is a downright discriminatory act against them
2015 was the first year for over thirty (30) consecutive years when workers in the sugar industry have received no increases in pay. Comrade Speaker, in harder times the workers’ worth was safeguarded, their importance acknowledged and they received an increase which played a key part in maintaining their family, paying their bills and keeping up with the ever-rising cost-of-living.
Comrade Speaker, this year, the Honourable Minister indicated that $9 billion would be provided to the sugar industry. While it is commendable, I need to point out that it is also $3 billion less than the sum of $12 billion that the Prime Minister announced, while in New York, during a recent meeting held he there and which was reported in the media. Comrade Speaker, this shortfall to the industry, at this time, will surely hamper the present efforts to turnaround the industry’s misfortunes. Indeed, Sir, the allocation of only three-quarters of the requested sum needed by GuySuCo will detract from the progress made so far and delay the implementation of plans to return the industry to a viable state.
Comrade Speaker, in considering the Government $9 billion subsidy and the prospects of the sugar industry which, in spite of its trials, still makes a sterling contribution to our economy and social life. And, in this context one cannot ignore the vexing issue of the closure of Wales Estate which has been mentioned in recent weeks by the Corporation as well as by Government officials.
The decision of closure, Sir, will affect some 2,500 workers and farmers directly and thousands more indirectly. It is a decision, Sir, taken without any credible study done. It is a decision that even the Sugar Commission of Inquiry (CoI) did not recommend. The haste with which the unpopular decision has been taken makes one wonder if there is more in the mortar than the pestle.
The Ministry of Agriculture and the GuySuCo in justifying the decision on Wales, Comrade Speaker, called attention primarily to the poor drainage and irrigation and bridges infrastructure, the condition of the fields and the aged factory which would require, we are told, major investment.
Comrade Speaker, the reasons given for the closure of Wales Estate are clearly overstated. Moreover, those reasons certainly do not reflect the improvements done in recent times both in the field and the factory and which involved substantial expenditure. That the factory is old and underperforms betrays a lack of knowledge of what has been done to the Wales factory. Since this seems to be the main of the four (4) reasons advanced for closing the Estate allow me, Sir, to point to a few relevant factors.
In terms of years, Wales’s factory would be as old as may be all the other sugar factories with the exception of Skeldon. However, whatever its age, let it be noted that the factory is designed to crush 102 tonnes of cane per hour. At this time, it is currently processing between 96 and 98 tonnes.
Additionally, Comrade Speaker, over recent years, many vital components have been replaced as is necessary. To this end, I wish to point out that the cane knives at Wales factory are similar to those utilized at four (4) other factories; its mills are similar to those used at Blairmont and Uitvlugt factories; the boiler is like the ones used at Rose Hall and Uitvlugt; the evaporators as well as the pans are of the same model used in five “old” (5) factories, and the baskets used are even better than those used in other factories. I refer to these updates about the Wales factory to show that the so-called “age” argument cannot really be a serious or strong reason for the arbitrary shutting down of Wales Estate.
Comrade Speaker, I wish to remind this Assembly that the quite expensive CoI, in reflecting on closure of Estates said on page thirty-seven (37) of Volume One of its Report that “the COI does not recommend the closure of the any estate at this time”. The CoI in reflecting on closure of estates at page thirty (30) of the same report said “They took into account the current state of the economy which lacks vibrancy, with awareness of the problems in the rice industry, the low market price of gold and the level of ‘unemployment’” and, at page thirty-one (31) the CoI said “the effect of closing any estate without planning and adequate notice to cane farmers has serious consequences, not only for the employees and private farmers but for the communities as well” . This, I think, was a reasonable advice. It was discarded obviously. Thus, I am prompted to ask:- is this the fate that awaits the report of this costly Commission?
Comrade Speaker, it is instructive that we be reminded that all political parties during the elections campaign spoke up in support of the sugar industry. They left no doubt that the industry would be maintained; closure was not mentioned at any time. Yet, in a mere matter of months after the National Elections, we are faced with this painful prospect of closure which will put hundreds on the breadline and bring greater hardships, if not ruin to hundreds of cane farmers and self-employed.
There is no denying that the consequences of the closure for those who will be affected will be grave indeed. The confusion with respect as to who took the decision or where the decision was made would be hilarious if the matter wasn’t so serious. Whatever the source of that decision, be it the GuySuCo or the Cabinet or whoever else, one thing is certain; it will impact negatively on many lives linked to the operations of Wales Estate. However, one looks at it, it is a callous and ill-thought out decision.
To those who have made the decision, allow me, Comrade Speaker to point out and emphasise that the decision will have major implications for the workers and their families, pensioners, business owners, service providers, and others. There will be a real risk of an escalation in the levels of poverty, unemployment and crime especially within the West Bank Demerara area. To those who made this decision, they should know that they will aggravate the unemployment situation both for the displaced workers and also the job prospects for the upcoming generations. This comes at a time when employment in areas even outside of the estate’s precincts, such as the city of Georgetown, is most difficult to obtain.
To those who made this decision, they should be aware that hundreds of cane farmers would face severe risks as with the present sugar prices there will now be the added burden of transporting their canes to Uitvlugt Estate which will very likely compel many to cease cane-cultivation. Their crop investments, including machinery costs, will all fall by the wayside. At this time, when renewed initiatives have been and are being taken to take this important industry to its better days when it used to provide a levy to the Treasury, wrong signals are being given to the workforce, as those workers utilize their labour to produce every pound of sugar made.
If the authorities persist with the closure then we stand to lose not less than 20,000 tonnes of sugar at this moment which cannot be good for our economy at this time nor in the near future.
Comrade Speaker, while steps are being taken to effect closure, I ask what and where are the plans that will indicate what are in store for the workers and various interest groups and the communities in the immediate future? What we have are some hazy thoughts strewn around and the recognized Unions in the industry nor the public are told of any well-considered plan about what measures and projects are in the pipeline if there are indeed any at all.
I note, Comrade Speaker, GuySuCo’s Chairman, Professor Clive Thomas in the February 07, 2016 edition of Stabroek News saying that some lands would be given to displaced workers to cultivate cane and other crops. While this idea is not a new one, it is being promoted in a different context. This is a suggestion that, I believe, requires study and thought as it is not as straight-forward as one may think. Commonsense tells us it will involve heavy costs. And, also certainly, an examination of the soils in identifying suitable crops has to be done; the training of the new farmers; the setting-up of facilities for storage and processing of the outputs, and the identification of suitable and compensatory markets, among other things, are important components to such venture. In view of the GuySuCo’s Chairman disclosure I would presume that this matter would have been discussed thoroughly and fully. And, that the responses are available to the valid and reasonable issues I raised. I urge the Minister of Agriculture as well as the GuySuCo’s Board Chairman to share without delay with the workers, their Unions, this Assembly and the Guyanese public these plans given their importance.
Comrade Speaker, at this time too, one can see that there is wide-spread objections to closure and the condemnation of the decision by the growing numbers of knowledgeable and concerned Guyanese are justifiable. I and the Union I represent urge the concerned authorities from the Corporation and the Government not to persist on this path. This path is to condemn many thousands of our compatriots to hardships that could very well be avoided. I also say that seeking to sideline the Trade Unions and not respect their legitimate role, should be discontinued.
What is worrying too Comrade Speaker is that Wales could be the first of many such painful stories. GuySuCo in letter to sugar workers dated January 29, 2016 said inter alia “…the Corporation took a decision to diversify the industry into non-sugar ventures and they have identified the Wales Estate cultivation for the first of such projects”. The statement is profound and, I believe, it implies that the closure thrust perhaps is just beginning. The cessation of cane-growing in Guyana will surely be a disastrous blow to the well-being of the Guyanese people and the country’s economy too.
Comrade Speaker, I believe that Wales Estate can overcome its current hurdles and difficulties. I recall that the Estate’s average sugar production reached about 30,000 tonnes during the 2002/2004 period. I am sure that a potential production of 35,000 tonnes is possible in the not-too-distant future once continued necessary inputs are available and there is a motivated workforce and an able management. There is also the view that a commitment to secure Wales will also incentivise farmers to replant about 500 hectares of land which have been retired and, if done, will be a big boost to production, which the industry needs presently. Value-added initiatives such as the production of brown sugar as a form of health food, is a market which is gaining traction in some developed countries and one which should be explored. Taken together these are possibilities that will certainly bring about a positive turnaround.
Comrade Speaker, while support has been given to the ailing industry, that support did not translate to wage increases for workers in 2015. In fact sugar workers were doubly hit by no wage increases and by a high-handed approach in fixing their API award. These are unfortunate developments in the industry. The workers are obviously being penalized for what? In the final analysis while the workers and their families are made to suffer, the Minister of Finance, I am sure will underline the importance of that industry to our economy and those who we depend on to keep it going, need to be encouraged and not discriminated against.
Comrade Speaker, sugar, whether at the macro or micro level, at the same time is much more important than finance and economics. We must take consideration of its social impact, the benefits enjoyed by various communities, its training programmes that impart technical training for youth together with other factors – all of which carry significant weight and cannot be excluded from any assessment of the industry.
The sugar industry has a major contribution to make to our economy now and moreso can be turned around within a few years. Closure and/or privatisation is not the option to follow. Let us be reminded that through the sugar levy, GuySuCo, for two (2) decades, between 1976 and 1996 paid G$58.7 billion, in today’s terms, to the Government as a levy. Hence this APNU/AFC Government should not hesitate to support the sugar industry.
We need to go forward with the many feasible measures identified to revive the sugar industry. We need to avoid doing those things that will roll back the consistent efforts needed. Immediately, one of those things is to rescind the decision to close Wales. This was underlined at a panel discussion held on February 05, 2016 at the Moray House Trust where participants from all walks of life were strong in their rejection to closure. There is a widespread mood in the nation that disagrees with closure. I call on the Government not to ignore that sentiment.
Comrade Speaker, the treatment of sugar workers during the last year and the impending closure of Wales Estate are ominous indicators to the working-class and farmers of Guyana. Let me agree with my colleagues, the ‘Good Life’ envisaged in the Budget may not apply to very many of them. In sugar, the Wage and API issues, rolling over from last year, remain outstanding. These issues, among other things, need to be addressed if the ‘Good Life’ is to have any meaning and not remain a mere slogan.
As we get ready to mark the 50th Anniversary since our Independence, we should rejoice in the freedom that was won out of our people’s struggles and not feel or harbour a sense that an oppressive state is in the making which is undermining that freedom and the colonial tactics of divisiveness may be creeping up on us yet again. Let us ensure that this is not so. We still need to forge National Unity and build our Nation.