ILO Study on closure of sugar estates proves workers let down by government

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The recently published International Labour Organisation (ILO) study on the closure of sugar estates, which is anchored in the country’s Decent Work Programme, has its genesis around 2015. The study set out to investigate the impact of estates closure on the workers and their communities dating back to the closure of the Diamond Estate, which happened under the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) Bharrat Jagdeo administration.

The closure of estates has seen workers and their communities coming out in protest against the PPP/C and A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) governments which together have closed all the East Demerara estates, falling in line with the recommendation from the World Bank. In the last election the PPP/C campaigned on the promise to reopen estates they themselves knew were on the chopping block, and that they had in fact commenced the implementation of.

What the PPP did to this nation was played on ethnic insecurities and caused sugar workers and their communities to believe they disagreed with the APNU+AFC’s decision, and that they would have reopened the estates if they got into office. The World Bank Report advised that the Demerara estates were not economically feasible, they should be closed, and the government should concentrate on the estates in Berbice.

Whereas I accept the beleaguered Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) is being sustained by the taxpayers, through the Consolidated Fund, it is accepted that something has to be done to relieve the Fund of this financial burden. I have argued previously for a holistic approach to diversification of economic activities within the sugar communities that would create opportunities for the dislocated as well as ensure continued maintenance of infrastructure and services such as health, drainage and irrigation that GuySuCo provides. I have also called for any decision on the way forward to include the workers and their representatives (i.e. the trade unions).

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And whereas the PPP/C will now seek to make partisan political mileage of the ILO findings we must not allow them to use this information to justify the continued mismanagement of GuySuCo or funneling taxpayer’s money to projects that are not economically feasible. Guyana continues to produce sugar at approximately US$ 0.41 cents and is selling it for US$ 0.13 cents.

Diversifying GuySuCo and putting alternative projects in the sugar communities are necessary for the well-being of the residents and the country as a whole. There is reservation that the PPP/C would rather use the study to further divide the nation and justify taxpayers financing GuySuCo instead of  seeking to take the workers out of a primitive form of  work.

There is no reason why sugar workers should still be doing back breaking work that mechanisation could provide for, and their talents diverted to the use of modern techniques. The only reason the PPP/C is keeping these workers in manual servitude is because it serves their political purpose. Sugar workers are being conditioned to feel their livelihood depends on primitive labour and the government cares about them, when in fact they are being transported daily to the estates in mode that existed in the early 20th century, and which look more today like carrying animals to the abattoir/slaughterhouse.

The conditions under which workers are labouring, even as there is commendation for the struggles of their unions to improve same, could be much better. Were the ancestors of these workers to revisit the estates they would sadly find insufficient improvement consistent with the times and the fought for. In the PPP/C’s world sugar workers are merely seen as a voting farm and will be exploited only to satisfy this need and reap the benefit.

The workers and their communities are being conditioned to think their ability is not beyond weilding a cutlass and hauling canes on their backs. It is tantamount to be trapped in a mental vortex which will affect anyone’s mental wellbeing. Workers are being stripped of their pride and dignity. The ILO study only confirms sugar workers are being let down by successive governments. 

As I stated during the APNU+AFC administration and previous PPP/C administrations, today I reiterate to the Irfaan Ali regime- the sugar workers deserve better and better must be done for them. Less time must be spent devising political schemes to use these workers as pawns and more time dedicated to conceptualising, developing and implementing a plan befitting 21st century workers. The ILO findings that closure of estates have not only caused economic dislocation but increase suicide, depression and alcohol consumption, the responsibility the government must take.  That responsibility began from the closure of the Diamond Estate where no alternative economic opportunities were found for the workers by the Jagdeo administration. There was no  structured programmme to mitigate the challenges faced by sugar workers and their communities. The APNU+AFC similarly had no plan.



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