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The 11-year industrial dispute between the Guyana Bauxite and General Workers Union (GB&GWU) and Bauxite Company Guyana Incorporated (BCGI) could have been settled long ago were there political will by successive governments. Whereas the workers had the political support of the then opposition People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR), Alliance for Change (AFC), and A Partnership for National Unity (APNU), when these forces entered the Executive in May 2015, they did not use their executive authority to enforce the Labour Laws to settle this grievance.
Workers alone cannot settle any grievance if the employer is not prepared to come to the table regardless of how much industrial action is taken. It is the government that intervenes to ensure a stable industrial relations environment through the enforcement of the Constitution and Laws of Guyana. When a government fails to do this the political opposition usually partners with Labour to cause the government to act.
In the instance of the GB&GWU/BCGI dispute it is not only about failure by successive governments to enforce the law but their responses which run deeper. The dispute was left unresolved by the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) because it formed part of their experiment with the programme of economic genocide in the African community.
Shortly after coming to office in 1992 they started laying off African public servants, then moved to the productive sector to target the viable bauxite industry. There were massive layoffs of thousands of workers, affecting them, their families and communities. The programme to bring Africans and their economy to their knees was moving apace. No less than 3500 bauxite workers were sent home in under five years. The PPP/C thereafter moved in and destroyed the bauxite workers’ pension plan, which was valued more than $2.5 billion and represented the single largest pool of money owned by African labour.
As bauxite workers, their families and communities were placed into the economic depressed category, the PPP/C sought to ensure the sugar workers’ pension plan through injection of money from the Consolidated Fund, and solidified the survival of sugar workers, their families and communities by keeping the beleaguered Guyana Sugar Corporation operational through continuous injection of billions of dollars from the Fund. And whereas sugar workers could have always relied on the PPP/C support in their fight to resolve their grievances, workers in other sectors could not rely on similar support from the coalition government.
The David Granger/Moses Nagamootoo government had a duty to reverse the the PPP/C’s policy of economic genocide in the African community by ensuring resolution to the GB&GWU/BCGI impasse through the conciliation and arbitration processes, which by law the Government is responsible for. Their action would have signalled to all discrimination against any group would not being tolerated, and the constitutional right of Guyanese to negotiate wage, salary and condition of employment through the process of collective bargaining would be respected.
When bauxite workers and their union fought the coalition to enforce the laws they faced rejection in some quarters because people felt the fight for justice and fair play constituted an attack on their government. In no small measure they provided cover to the coalition’s absence of political will to resolve the issue. Such action not only threatens Guyanese labour but the sovereignty of Guyana.
The industrial environment today for the teachers, public servants, BCGI workers and others, particularly where African labour is significant has been made worse by the coalition refusal to respect the laws and right the industrial wrongs of the PPP/C. Admittedly during their tenure there were higher wages and salary increases in the public service. This is however meaningless in so far that in arriving at the sum the constitutional right to collective bargaining was trampled on. This remains one of the Labour’s major discontents with the APNU+AFC government.