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….says statement not reflective of the government
The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) has expressed deep disappointment with remarks made by Labour Minister, Joseph Hamilton about trade unions during his appearance on Globespan on March 22, 2022.
The union said in as much as the Minister did not attribute his sentiments to any particular union/s, his comments “in our view does not help to enhance his image among the thousands of unionised workers in Guyana. Moreover, it may have well demonstrated an anti-worker bias by the Minister though we do not believe this was his intention.”
According to GAWU, Minister Hamilton shared that he believed some unions were not providing adequate representation to their membership. However, a few moments later the Minister said under his tenure twenty-two (22) agreements were signed between Unions and various workplaces. This he said was greater than what was achieved in the period of the Coalition Administration. “It, therefore, begs the question if unions are signing more agreements, then how aren’t they providing sufficient representation? Clearly there is an obvious disconnect in the logic. We nonetheless hold that improvements in all organisations, including the Ministry of Labour, should be an ongoing process,” GAWU stated.
The minister also said, according to GAWU that no union has ever spoken to him about any other matter besides improvements in workers’ pay. “For GAWU, we have engaged the Minister on several matters such as Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) and need for strengthening regulations, the freedom of association, equality in the workplace, collective bargaining just to name a few. Ironically, the GAWU has thus far not engaged the Minister and his Ministry on pay increase issues except for the improvement of the National Minimum Wage. Maybe Minister Hamilton, given his busy schedule, does not recall those interactions.”
The GAWU said pay rises remains a bread-and-butter issue for both workers and unions. It added that the ability of workers and their families to advance their well-being and realise their life’s aspirations are linked to their incomes. “Obviously, unions will seek to ensure that workers benefit from the improvement their enterprises record. They certainly would have assisted in allowing those enterprises to record improved profitability and productivity. In the unorganised section of the labour force, are workers benefitting commensurately with the improvements their employers are recording? Maybe they are, but maybe they aren’t!”
Minister Hamilton said also that unions don’t speak about OSH and he urged that they do. “We agree that OSH is important. In that vein, the GAWU has collaborated with the Ministry over the years in the conduct of OSH seminars and other activities in support of this workplace issue. However, we urge the Minister to utilise the Ministry’s statistical department, which he touted, to contrast OSH incidents between organised and unorganised workplaces. The data would tend to indicate that OSH issues are more prevalent in the latter rather than the former. There is good reason for this. Unions and employers have been able to collaborate to meaningfully address this issue. Though again, we believe, there must be an ongoing assessment to identify and mitigate risks. Our Union in just the last few days has been working with employers in several enterprises to renew the mandates of joint workplace OSH committees as outlined by the Act apart from other OSH issues. In contrast, such features are absent in many unorganised workplaces,” GAWU said. The union said in recent times, it has had cause to write the Ministry regarding several OSH issues that came to its attention at unorganised workplaces.
According GAWU, the minister also charged that unions were stuck in a bygone era. He said workers were more willing now-a-days to enter contractual employment as opposed to permanent employment. He articulated Unions advocated the latter. He justified contract employment by saying that workers would receive gratuity bi-annually allowing them to finance important acquisitions such as a home or a vehicle. “We are conscious that many workers have productively utilised their gratuity to them and their family’s benefit. However, outside of the State sector is the Minister aware of how many workers receive gratuity? Our own information, though not complete, indicates that workers seldom receive gratuity or any superannuation benefits. If they have permanent employment, they may have pension benefits which they would receive should they leave their jobs. We hasten to wonder whether the Minister is aware of the many workers who are denied their lawful terminal benefits on the attainment of pension. We have met several such workers who we had to direct to the Ministry given the refusal of employers to engage our union as they claim they do not have any legal obligation to address GAWU.”
The GAWU said even in instances where employees receive gratuity it means besides NIS, they have no other retirement benefit. The union asked whether the Minister believes that the NIS benefits, though important, are sufficient to meet expenses of pensioners? “Will it meet greater cost of health care at an advanced age? Or able to surmount rising living costs? Certainly, if NIS was sufficient, then many retired workers would not be at work or highly dependent on the State for many services. Additionally, as the Minister would know, contract employment goes against the grain of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Decent Work Agenda which, among other things, emphasizes security of tenure. Contract employees, at times, could have the proverbial Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. Should workers live in fear that their contract may not be renewed annually?”
Additionally, the Minister said his Ministry has delivered substantial training to workers under his leadership. “This, as far as we are aware, is one of the many functions of the Ministry. But we saw the Minister boasting about doing his job. Nonetheless we would urge the Minister to publicise the worker training the Ministry provides. GAWU would encourage union members to attend. We believe it would augment the training programmes undertaken by our Union.”
The Minister also criticized union’s leadership. “While we cannot speak for other unions, GAWU has taken great effort to ensure there is a mixture of younger and experienced persons in our leadership. We have allocated considerable resources to improve and expand our leadership. We see this as an investment in the future and to ensure the continuity of the organisation.
The Minister’s remarks may be seen as anti-worker. This is not helpful given his role where he is expected to balance workers and employers’ issues. We believe that despite the views expressed by Minister Hamilton, unions remain relevant more so at this time when workers in the unorganised sectors are complaining regularly about disrespect and indignation at their workplaces. As GAWU has experienced, in recent times, some employers are sparing no effort to avert union presence. Certainly, given the union avoidance attitude we have seen, the relevance of unions cannot be wished away or downplayed in no way.”
The GAWU added it does not believe that the Minister’s views are reflective of the wider Government of Guyana. “We are aware of the Government’s commitment to involve genuine stakeholders in national development,” the statement concluded.