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2020 was a difficult year for workers. Were it not for our unique resilience, determination and ingenuity things could have been worse.
BCGI decade-old impasse
The year started with the RUSAL management of Bauxite Company Guyana Incorporated (BCGI) terminating hundreds of workers who stood in defence of Guyana sovereignty and demanded, consistent with the Collective Bargaining procedure, the company sit at the table with their representatives and negotiate wages and working conditions.
Whereas bauxite workers are not part of the military they went to the battlefront for this nation. For years they fought against a foreign interloper who felt Guyana is their territory, they can make their own laws, and treat Guyanese as they please. Bauxite workers sent a strong signal that this will not be tolerated. Figuratively they went to the border (Berbice River) and protected Guyana not with guns and military fatigues but with a rope and short pants, blocking RUSAL (the Russians) from taking Guyana’s resources (bauxite) without justly rewarding Guyanese labour.
I reiterate disappointment with the Coalition Government’s lack of full-throated response to RUSAL disrespect for the Constitution, Laws and Guyanese labour. The decade-old impasse should have been resolved during their stewardship. At March when the nation went to elections the impasse concluded at the level of Conciliation. What was required by the Chief Labour Officer was the declaration of a deadlock. This would have taken the parties (company and union) to arbitration where the decision of the Arbitrator would have been final and binding on both sides. When the administration of government changed hands the incoming People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C), rather than move the process forward, announced that the matter is closed.
Something is wrong in our society when successive governments are failing to uphold Guyana laws, industrial relations principles and practices when confronted by foreign forces. Bauxite workers have demonstrated they have more testicular fortitude, more fight in them to protect and defend Guyana sovereignty than those elected to office and taken an oath to do so.
Elections and harassment of workers by the PPP/C
During the election period Bharrat Jagdeo, Juan Edghill, et al, threatened public servants and police about the security of their jobs should the PPP/C be reelected to office. Jagdeo is on record saying workers and their family who helped the Coalition will pay a price. 2020 saw the return to a landscape where workers are operating in an environment of harassment, fear and threats.
There was ethnic cleansing impacting hundreds of workers and the criminalisation of labour. Public sector workers who were employed during the Coalition, with no evidence against them, were terminated. Some have been harassed in what was intended to be a politically motivated public shaming.
Workers of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) were targeted under the guise of electoral fraud which the PPP/C should be answering for. For if they were really serious about fraud, they would have addressed the issue for the 47 plus boxes in their strong holds that had no statutory documents but which GECOM was forced to count as valid votes.
They are showing partiality to labour that engage in questionable act they benefit from. Persons saw their rights violated with impunity. Some were locked up without being charged, denied the right to counsel and personal care. They intent is have a section of society walk with heads bowed in shame as they hold theirs high and want society to accept their wrong as right.
2020 was the year Guyana was bludgeoned by alternative facts, (lies) in a similar environment like the United States, by elements seeking political dominance and control. The year saw the integrity of the votes, which the Guyana Trade Union Congress fought to preserve, denied. The nation was forced to accept votes that violated the election laws and flawed results declared as representing the will of the people.
Refusal to implement minimum wage and pay public servants increase
The Tripartite Committee on Labour (Ministry, Employers’ and Employees’ Organisations) agreed, during the stewardship of Minister Amna Ally, to increase the Private Sector minimum wage to $60,000.00. On the change of administration, the Irfaan Ali government and Private Sector colluded not to implement the decision.
Not unsurprisingly the PPP/C regime continued the policy of putting their boot on the neck of the working poor. $60,000 (approx. USD$300.) is not too much to pay workers in this sector. These workers too have to face the same market prices and pay their bills.
In 2020, public sector workers were denied wages and salary increase. The government refused to negotiate with the unions in public sector which is a violation of Sect 23(1) of the Trade Union Recognition Act. Were negotiations held there would have been an increase for all public sector workers, retroactive to 1st January 2020. That increase and back pay were denied by a uncaring government, who felt it is not only ok to deny workers’ rights but acceptable to issue a mere pittance of a two-weeks bonus.
COVID-19 and Cash Grant
The workers were let down. Instead of government setting up a comprehensive plan how to deal with the needs of the people as a result of the crisis created by COVID-19, business shuttered and income lost, many suffered. Vulnerable groups were left to fend for themselves.
The cash grant payment per household was corrupt and deficient. There are houses that have two or more workers, each responsible for their own economic activities. This is reality of the average Guyanese home which should have been factored in and payment made to each worker, particularity the employed and retired.
The 25,000 and payout management, which the regime said was to alleviate economic hardship, fell woefully short. It is even more insulting compared to USD$25,000 per month they are paying an international lobbying firm, from the Treasury, to do political campaign work under the guise of state activities.
Further, the government did not pay money per household or individual worker. Money was paid per building which is a marked distinction from that of a household. In cases where there is more than one apartment in the building only one received. They are people living in an individual building (with no apartment) who did not received the grant and no mechanism put in place to ensure they did.
In the working environment there was no comprehensive plan to ensure the welfare of frontline workers, those who kept us safe. As the pandemic hit Guyana healthcare workers were forced to resort to public protest to get Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and financial compensation. When they took industrial action rather than the government addressed the problems swiftly, the workers were attacked and demonised by the very regime whose job it is to provide these basic amenities. The Occupational Safety and Health Act protects workers who refuse to work under unsafe conditions.
At a national level government failed to manage the deadly pandemic in a manner to mitigate spread and minimise loss of lives. Many were made to feel it was acceptable in the eyes of government to be a casualty to the disease.
Sugar and other workers
2020 was another tough year for the industry. The Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) continued to underperform, relying heavily on the Consolidated Fund to bail them out to the tune of billions of dollars. With production failing to meet already low set target, the life of the sugar workers became vulnerable. With the change of administration, the government has taken a decision, which they claim is informed by socio-economic considerations, to reopen closed estates, rehire workers, and pump billions more into GuySuCo. A similar consideration has not been expressed for other workers.
Workers, outside of sugar, must take note that their socio-economic wellbeing in the eyes of this regime does not matter. To the PPP/C the welfare of bauxite and other public sector workers are infinitesimal. These workers leave 2020 knowing regardless of which government is in office they will have to fight, some more than some. We are no longer operating in a friendly working-class environment. Even those who feel they will benefit from a particular government are also being shortchanged but they compromise for political association.
2020 proved, once again, the plight of the working class can only be addressed when workers are prepared to hold all employers and governments accountable, irrespective of. Power concedes nothing without a fight. Fight we must and fight I shall.