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…Labour Minister says unions must retool to remain relevant
By Svetlana Marshall
Workers in Guyana’s Oil and Gas Sector are being exploited, General Secretary of the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC), Lincoln Lewis said as he addressed a small gathering of trade unionists, politicians and workers at the Critchlow Labour College to mark Labour Day under strict COVID-19 measures.
“It is disheartening what is happening in the foreign-owned Oil and Gas Sector…In this sector, exploitation of workers is rampant,” the veteran trade unionist told those present, as he urged Guyanese not to be bystanders to acts of transgression and violation. In an attempt to solidify his contention, Lewis submitted that workers in the Oil and Gas Sector are being arbitrarily dismissed, though not singling out any specific company.
“For instance, should a worker question the conditions under which he is working, the employer retaliates by not recalling that worker after he would have gone on turnaround. In addition to this transgression to the working class and family, Guyanese workers are not enjoying equal pay for equal work to their foreign counterparts,” he explained.
Lewis posited that while there maybe be limitation within the Petroleum Contract, the Irfaan Ali Administration ought to do much more in the areas of workers’ protection and advancement. “So far, they have failed to work with the Opposition and the Trade Unions to conceptualise and introduce laws, policies and programmes to secure the welfare of the workers of Guyana. The
People’s Progressive Party/Civic seems to be picking up from where they left off; and the Ali regime will offer no new hope to these Guyanese Labour,” the trade unionist contended. He said the abuse of workers in the Oil and Gas Sector is nothing new and must be immediately addressed by the PPP/C Administration.
“The contempt Guyanese workers are being subjected to in the oil and gas sector started more than a decade ago in the Bauxite Company Guyana Incorporated (BCCI). It was the PPP/C Government [that] first aided and abetted the RUSAL management transgressing workers’ rights and violating Guyana laws. They have allowed a foreign company to make bauxite workers second class citizens in their own land. Now this lawlessness has spread to the oil sector,” Lewis said.
It was also submitted that while the PPP/C, in opposition, condemned the A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) Administration for agreeing and signing a contract considered to be lopsided by the citizenry, now in Government, it is refusing to renegotiate the very contract. Lewis said this is nothing but hypocrisy.
The GTUC General Secretary said too that though the PPP/C Government, while on the campaign trail assured the creation of 50,000 jobs, it has offered little hope since taking office, with hundreds of public servants being placed on the breadline.
He urged those present, and even those who viewed the programme online, to hold the PPP/C Government accountable, warning that failure to do so could result in self-destruction.
“We must hold this regime accountable. For accountable governance is crucial to a safe and productive workforce. We must together demand resolution to the decade-plus grievances in BCGI. These bauxite workers are patriots. For when successive governments wavered, trembled or threw up their hands, bauxite workers stood resolutely and confronted a foreign force threatening Guyana’s sovereignty,” he said.
A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) Member of Parliament, Roysdale Forde, S.C, in his address, said there can be no stability and no cohesiveness in a country where there is an absence of accountable governance as he referenced to this year’s theme “Accountable Governance: Crucial To A Safe And Productive Labour Force.”
He told those present that the current administration does not appear to be particularly mindful of executing its responsibilities. “The evidence which continues to unfold before us points to a preoccupation with power and not with accountability, by those who now control the state,” he said while adding that: “If you are going to be accountable, you have to be mindful of the fact that it is the whole of the country and all of its people that are your responsibility; you have to be mindful that you do not bring narrow prejudices, narrow preferences to the table; you have to ensure that the resources of the country are distributed in a manner that ensures equal opportunity for growth and for development. You cannot, govern in a manner that indicates that you are unmindful of the welfare and the well-being of all of the people of our country.”
He posited that since taking office, the PPP/C has dismissed hundreds of public servants regardless of qualification and experience. Others have been reassigned.
“Equally worrying, is the dysfunctional environment that now exists within that institution. This may well be a microcosm of a wider circumstance that exists elsewhere amongst the institutions of the state. You cannot lay any seriously valid claim to accountability if the evidence that you
provide suggests that you are setting about eroding the institutions of the state,” he further posited.
Minister of Labour, Joseph Hamilton, who was also among officials present, said since the PPP/C Government took office, there has been significant improvements in the labour sector, first with the establishment of a Ministry of Labour, and subsequently with the expansion of the staffing complement. He explained that under the previous Administration there were less than 90 employees attached to the then Department of Labour but today, there are over 200 persons working within the Ministry of Labour, who are receiving continuous training to supervisor and monitor emerging sectors such as the Oil and Gas Sector.
Minister Hamilton said his ministry is aggressively working to improve the conditions of work in the Labour Sector. Turning his attention to the Unions, the Labour Minister said there is evidence suggesting that Credit Unions in the country are being mismanaged. Further, he said there has been a significant reduction in the number of unions in the country, and those which remain are in need for a change in leadership. Minister Hamilton submitted that there is need for accountability and transparency within the unions.
“I believe that trade unions are necessary and they have an important role to play in the protection of the rights of workers and defending workers, but I will say this, I believe that unless trade unions retool, remodel, refresh themselves, the things they seek will not be forthcoming, and in a specific way,” he said.
He said trade unions must be broad base, and such must be reflective in their representation. “Workers, there are two struggles, one, is the struggle for their rights, the struggle with employers but I believe workers also have another struggle going on, that is the struggle with the leadership of their unions, that struggle must end,” he posited. He said workers must recognize that that which they seek will elude them until there is an end to the struggle within their union.