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by Nicole Telford
Close to four hundred sugar workers have gone on strike due to non-payment of severance or a package offer from the People’s Progressive Party Civic (PPP/C) Government. It has been sixteen days since workers downed tools and took to the streets, first protesting at Rose Hall Canje Berbice, then at the PPP/C Party Office in New Amsterdam, and on August 30, 2023, at the General Agricultural Workers Union (GAWU) and Office of the President in the Capital City, Georgetown.
Khemraj Ramjattan, Alliance For Change (AFC) Leader, Opposition Parliamentarian, and Shadow Minister of Agriculture, who has been engaging with the striking workers at every stage of their strike, spoke to ‘IN THE RING’ Host Sherod Duncan on the callousness of GAWU and the PPP/C Government. The AFC leader said that although the workers pay union dues, members went to the union three times during the day, but “the union representatives first told the sugar workers that no official was there to see them, then they shut the gates on the Sugar Workers, its union members.” Workers traveled from Berbice for assistance at their GAWU Union Kingston Head Office. Ramjattan further explained that when they called out for the President, Vice President, or the Minister of Agriculture Zulficar Mustapha in front of the Office of the President and next to the Ministry of Agriculture, no one came out or was sent to have an audience with them.
‘IN THE RING’ Host Sherod Duncan questioned the reasons for the reluctance of the Minister of Agriculture, Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo, and President Irfaan Ali to have an audience with the sugar workers. Ramjattan’s answer was brutal as he outlined three reasons, one of which he believes is the PPP/C’s arrogance because they are in power. He said, “I do not really understand, I am trying to work it out because quite a number of those names they gave me, about three hundred and ninety-something, are Black sugar workers. I hope to God that is not a reason that they are refusing to talk to them because the majority of them might very well be Black people, because all across their policies (PPP/C policies) reflect an ethnic pattern, a racial pattern…”
Ramjattan cited the work of Freddie Kissoon, who characterized Jagdeo’s ideology in his study, and also referred to Professor Constantine, who, he noted, claims that the PPP/C’s behavior exhibits racial overtones. The Alliance for Change Leader listed “…especially the Policies of the PPP and its distribution of resources under the fishermen Relief, the COVID Relief, the flood Relief and now relief for sugar workers it could have that element.”
Ramjattan noted that while now the PPP/C government does consider the plight of the sugar workers important enough to warrant assistance, he mentioned that during the APNU/AFC Government’s severance payment period, Anil Nandlall, then a PPP/C member of Parliament, had informed the sugar workers that traveling to an estate ten miles away was considered a different contract of employment, and as a result, they should receive severance pay. However, the Alliance for Change leader now argues that since the PPP/C is in government and has oil revenues, the striking sugar workers should receive some form of compensation. He added that the PPP/C’s February 2023 budget, which has not yet been fully spent, includes allocations for payments to sugar workers.
The striking sugar workers explained that they did not receive the severance package from the closure of Rose Hall Canje sugar estate because they opted for continued work at Albion and Blairmont sugar estates during the payout of severance under the APNU/AFC Government. The AFC Leader said that the PPP/C government is now reopening Rose Hall Sugar Estate and the workers will now have to return to work there without any benefits being paid to them. The sugar workers are claiming they will lose twice as much because when the PPP/C came to office in 2020, they paid out two hundred and fifty thousand dollars plus hampers to the workers who had already received severance but none to the nearly four hundred currently striking workers.