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This year I spent a quiet Christmas on the Essequibo Coast also known as Cinderella County. Christmas in Essequibo reminds me of my boyhood days on the West Coast Berbice, for Christmas Day is about family and being with family. My time was spent with my wife and in-laws. We spent the day eating and drinking the traditional Christmas fare, catching up on stories as soft music, such as Ace Cannon, Sam Cooke, Percy Sledge, Lou Rawls and music of that genre background the atmosphere.
It felt good to shut oneself away from the news around the world and constant use of the telephone. Just for that day life was lived without care for time, relishing in the calm and fun-filled atmosphere where the centre of my world was family. As a trade unionist in the rough and tumble of life these rare private moments mean much to me and are cherished. But even as I took the day to spend solely with family not far from my mind remains the plight of the working class, the cries of a people for social, economic, and political justice.
2020 has been rough on workers. Not merely because of COVID-19 and having to confront the challenges of the pandemic but also the economic challenges that came with the realisation their conditions of work have taken a turn for the worse. The customary Guyana tradition for public sector workers to receive increased wages and salary did not happen this year.
Over the last five years reasonable increases were given to these employees by the previous David Granger/Moses Nagamootoo government. This year the Irfaan Ali government made it very clear it will not pay any increase to public sector workers. The arbitrary position has been taken by the government as an employer when there exists a contractual arrangement with the unions in the public sector to meet and negotiate increased wages and salaries for 2020.
Whereas the previous government had not negotiated a wages and salaries package, which is non-excusable, increases were paid in excess of what the previous PPP/C government paid to workers. Public servants have not only come to accept this as the new minimum any government will pay but also looked forward to the traditional yearly increase.
Pronouncement by the government that they pay frontline healthcare workers two-week bonus and risk allowance, it must be noted such payment has only been made possible after those workers downed tools and protested in the streets against the conditions under which they are being forced to work in the deadly COVID-19 environment. As it relates to workers in the Disciplined Forces, they received a mere two-week bonus and like their fellow public sector workers no salary increase.
This is the level of callousness and crudity being demonstrated by this government. Since August they have been making it very clear there will not be equal treatment for workers, and the identifier for that dissimilar treatment would be based on who these workers are and where they work. Whereas there is a view the bonus paid to the Discipline services is an attempt at buying loyalty to carry out acts inimical to the standard operating procedures of the profession, it does not remove the fact that our uniformed workers are treated with similar disregard.
This government would like it to be believed that the socio-economic wellbeing of workers and their communities are of import to them. Citizens are realising daily that importance is only applicable to some workers, notably sugar workers. As a trade unionist I do not oppose government spending billions to create 700 jobs for sugar workers based on the argument being used that these workers’ socio-economic wellbeing and their communities are of import.
But we must ask, what about the socio-economic wellbeing of bauxite workers employed at the Bauxite Company of Guyana Incorporated (BCGI) who have been on the breadline for the entire year? What about the communities these workers are from? Aren’t they of equal import and deserving similar treatment as sugar workers? All this government has to do is reopen BCGI. The same considerations that caused them to reopen closed estates must inform the reopening of BCGI. Nothing prevents the government from doing this other than their own unwillingness and because of who the workers are.
Unlike sugar, bauxite is economically viable. How can a government therefore explain keeping an economically viable company closed as it pumps billions in a beleaguered company and reopen closed estates? We need no further evidence that the government doesn’t care about the wellbeing of workers at BCGI, those in the public sector and disciplined services. This is the socioeconomic and political injustice Guyanese must confront in 2021. Power concedes nothing without demand. Where the marginalised fail to demand what is justly theirs they become willing participants to their deprivations. We must change course.