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2021 Labour Day finds the trade union forced to confront numerous challenges even as it seeks to assert its constitutional relevance. Individual trade unions are grappling with their own internal issues, such as seeking to get the employer to respect Collective Bargaining as in the case of public sector workers, teachers, and bauxite workers employed by the Bauxite Company of Guyana Incorporated (BCGI).
Recently sugar workers staged a protest seeking increased pay from the cash-strapped Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo). In less than a fortnight of protesting the government hierarchy intervened and had that dispute settled. Earlier in the week workers of the Guyana Power and Light (GPL) staged a protest to bring attention to their grievances.
Whilst sugar workers’ wage dispute saw intervention by GuySuCo, at the behest of the government, other state-owned agencies have not had the benefit of similar treatment. Workers who are represented by the Guyana Public Service Union, Guyana Teachers Union and Guyana Bauxite & General Workers Union have been publicly beseeching their employer, the Government of Guyana, to respect the workers’ right to Collective Bargaining.
Then there is the decade-plus dispute with workers of BCGI and the RUSAL management, even as the Government, who is part-owner of the company and enforcer of the Labour laws, allows the company to mistreat workers. The dispute seems to be placed on the backburner. Many wonder why the government has failed to have a plan to make BCGI operational when they made all efforts to have GuySuCo and closed sugar estates reopened with funding from the Treasury.
All is not well for workers. It appears the achievements of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, the Father of Trade Unionism in the English-speaking Commonwealth and trade unionists like Cheddie Jagan, Forbes Burnham, Jane Phillips-Gay among others are not being revered but discarded. This would be most unfortunate for workers, whose forebears came out of brutal systems where they were not only treated as the property of another, but paid pittance and worked under harsh and immune conditions.
It would be a travesty to have the gains of the trade union movement reversed. These gains are numerous. They include minimum wage; paid sick, maternity and vacation leave; the National Insurance Scheme (NIS); 40-hour work week; eight-hour work day and paid overtime in excess of; pension; Landlord and Tenancy Act; public education and healthcare systems; universal adult suffrage; internal self-government, etc.
The struggles of the trade union have not been easy and are apparently being made more difficult in an environment of hostile employers and complicit government. It continues to be ignored that workers are not enemies to progress, productivity and development but critical to these. It continues to be ignored that workers are too entitled to form and be part of an association, as the employer or private sector, to represent their interests. The trade union serves that purpose, and it would be a travesty to employers and government if this basic right to association is being denied workers.
The trade union is an institution of society. In Guyana the trade union holds the distinction of being the oldest mass-based institution. Its existence and relevance are guaranteed in the Guyana Constitution. And to the extent where survival and participation are constitutionally protected workers have to demand respect for such protection. Workers should do serious introspect on this Labour Day. They need to examine what actions are needed by them to safeguard their rights and protect their relevance in society. As Pope Francis said, “trade unions have been an essential force for social change, without which a semblance of decent and humane society is impossible under capitalism.”