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Immediate Past President (IPP) of the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) Sister Coretta McDonald in her charge to workers at the just concluded 5th Triennial Conference (November 8th-10th) called on them to unite. Delivering her remarks on Wednesday, McDonald told workers the country is transforming, and they must benefit from the newfound oil wealth. Making known the trade unions are not opposed to foreign labour, she said “the government must get it right with us first, we have been here, and we are suffering.”
Touching on the Venezuela/Guyana border controversy the IPP stated “On this issue, we stand in firm support of the government’s efforts to resolve this matter. Our arguments with the government end at the border where there are foreign enemies. We stand as one in the interest of country and the people of Guyana. We are of the firm view that the 1899 Arbitral Award is the final and perfect settlement of this controversy.
We affirm that international law must be respected. We believe that the ICJ process must be respected and the outcome should be accepted. We are sure that Guyana’s borders have been settled a long time ago and we should never give up a single blade of grass.”
The full presentation follows:-
Ladies and gentlemen,
Chairman, honourable delegates, I am extremely honoured to deliver this address on this occasion.
I stand before you at this moment and take no pleasure in reporting to you that in the year of the lord 2023. And after centuries of the feet and the hands of the workers being sore, filled with calluses and corn, we still continue to scrap and fight for employment justice.
You will notice in contrast to a few years ago – that there is now a widespread belief amongst workers and trade union officers that we are ‘in trouble’. That today, every part of our world, the social fabric, the biosphere, is under stress, we are in a state of crisis, and simply can’t carry on business as usual.
The Ali led government has no interest in our welfare. Unfortunately, too many national and local actors don’t know or understand trade unions. They continue to resist and avoid trade unions, instead of working with us. As a result, in 2023, we still remain a largely untapped potential for this country’s development.
This situation is further compounded by the fact that we have a government in place with a leader who has declared war on bureaucracy and the structures of representation for the people. Friends, I am sorry to report that this is the most challenging time for the trade union movement. We are under the most uncaring administration in Guyana’s modern history. It is in this regrettable context, I address you.
Trade unions have traditions and capacity to speak directly to the problem, but we can do so much more. We believe in the ‘education for the people.’ I hold the view that workers should be especially targeted for education, because they are on the front-line of production, consumption and service delivery, and empowering them would bring concrete benefits for sustainable development.
Over the years, in Guyana, trade unions have developed networks for education. This is a huge education system that has been organised, paid for and belongs to workers. It provides them with education that is relevant, up-to-date and accessible to men and women alike. I ask this uncaring government: why wouldn’t you seek to utilise this resource as fully as possible?
Unions exist to protect the rights and interests of their workers. When workers are happy, governments are happy. At the same time, we speak for all workers, both in the workplace and in the community. We believe that we deserve it.
Today, I want to tell you what the state of affairs is, its consequences and what must be done.
Unity and strength of the movement
Friends, trade unions are key for the labor movement and for this reason, we must unite for the strength needed for this uncaring regime. Chairperson, we stand proud in Guyana as descendants with a proud history of the trade union movement.
The British Guiana Labor Union (BGLU) was founded in 1919, emerging as a labour union amongst black dockworkers, led by Hubert Critchlow. It soon expanded into a colony-wide labour movement. BGLU was not the first trade union in the Caribbean but was the first to be legally registered. We have that proud record, and our roots are deep.
Many have sought to crush and destroy this movement but today, we stand strong and under our leadership, workers can guarantee that you will get your fair share in this oil and gas economy. We stand firm.
Let those in this regime who believe that Guyana’s oil wealth is for friends, family and favorites. Be warned-we are coming for our fair share. The workers of this country must benefit from the newfound oil wealth.
With the same fortitude that propelled Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow to challenge the greedy owners of the shipping companies in 1905, we will get a fair share for workers in the country from this greedy government. My friends this cannot be achieved if there is no unity. There must be unity among you, first and foremost. At your workplaces, you must unite against uncompromising and uncaring employers. If you see your colleague under threat, do not dismiss it as ‘it is not your business’.
There must be unity among the middle management of the unions. You must coordinate. At the level of the leadership, we must unite against a government that hell bent on dividing the unions to keep us fighting. While friends, family and favorites escape with the country’s patrimony. My friends, unity and strength is needed. This country is transforming. The government appears to be willing to open the doors of Guyana to all workers of the world while ignoring the needs of those who have been here toiling in the sun. We are not opposed to workers of the world but the government must get it right with us first, we have been here and we are suffering.
Friends, we must unite.
Oil already generates us$1 billion in revenues annually for the government and will produce an estimated US$7.5 billion by 2040. With a third of the year past, Guyana has received 26% of the US$1.63 billion in 2023 revenues which the ministry of finance projected would be deposited into the country’s oil fund. The US$421 million received, accounts for payments from the sale of four profit oil lifts and two quarterly royalty payment. To date, the government of Guyana has withdrawn US$400 million, equivalent to GY$83.2 billion from the natural resource fund. Where is the money? It is in the ‘one Guyana’ circle?
In the meantime, in all this oil wealth, workers cannot even afford to buy food for their children in this county. If we don’t unite, we are doomed under this regime. Let us put aside our differences and save this country from the uncaring and corrupt.
Chairperson, in the context and the background that I have outlined thus far, it is useful for me to submit to this forum, a brief update on our proud history. We must remember our history and never miss these opportunities to remind governments that seek to crush and divide trade unions.
Friends, I must remind you-as an organised movement, trade unionism (also called organised labour) originated in the 19th century in Great Britain, continental Europe, and the United States. In many countries trade unionism is synonymous with the term Labour Movement. Smaller associations of workers started appearing in Britain in the 18th century, but they remained sporadic and short-lived through most of the 19th century, in part because of the hostility they encountered from employers and government groups that resented this new form of political and economic activism. British unionism received its legal foundation in the Trade-Union Act of 1871. As a colony of Britain at this time, British Guiana came under the watch of this legal framework.
In the United States the same effect was achieved, albeit more slowly and uncertainty, by a series of court decisions that whittled away at the use of injunctions, conspiracy laws, and other devices against unions. So, my friends, you can see that what we face today, the same issues under this government. These issues were faced centuries ago. Nothing has changed. In 1866 the formation of the National Labor Union (NLU) represented an early attempt to create a Federation of American Unions.
Although the NLU disappeared in the 1870s, several of its member trade unions continued, representing such diverse occupations as shoemakers, spinners, coal miners, and railway workers. The founding of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) by several unions of skilled workers in 1886 marked the beginning of a continuous large-scale labour movement in the United States. Its member groups comprised national trade or craft unions that organised local unions and negotiated wages, hours, and working conditions. These developments reached the shores of the colony of British Guiana and trade unionism was born here.
The Guyana Trades Union Congress is a national trade union center in Guyana. It was founded in 1941 as the British Guiana Trades Union Council. Chairperson, we are now affiliated with the International Trade Union Confederation. This is our proud history and the Ali regime must know that we have survived more powerful forces and will continue to survive. We must remember that our journey was not easy.
I wish to refer to the submission of Richard Hart in his study, ‘the birth of trade union movement in the English-speaking Caribbean area’:
“the trade union movement in the English-speaking Caribbean area was born in conditions of illegality. Immediately after the abolition of slavery and apprenticeship, statutes were enacted in several British colonies which, reinforcing the common law of England, made the formation of combinations of workers a criminal offence”
Friends, you must know your history. Let it fortify as we prepare for this fight for our fair share in this oil and gas economy.
The government posture towards GTUC
It is with some regret that I inform you that the government’s posture towards the Guyana Trade Union Congress remains confrontational and unresponsive. The government believes that if they can’t control the unions, there can be no cooperation. This is regrettable. Let me make it clear to the Ali regime: we do not want this situation, but you continue to show little regard for the worth of the labor movement and its leader.
Since coming to office in august 2020, the GTUC and its leadership has been under verbal assault by the regime. The government’s posture is one of disregard and the need to control. Our submissions are ignored. The government flouts the laws that relate to workers and unions. There is no response to our letters and meetings are often non-existent.
In my opinion, unions remain key for the labour movements and in the process have emerged as the most organised actors and the most articulate voices in society. Unions are built on values, ideals, and a vision of society in which workers’ rights are recognised, and where there is stability, equilibrium and justice for everyone.
This government is not interested in justice for the workers. The Ali regime believes that they can bypass the unions and go directly to the workers and bribe them. The government must know-unions have been important institutions of this society. The mobilising capacity of unions has been a unique asset; it is the backbone of their influence which has helped deliver successful outcomes in terms of equity and justice to workers all over the world. The values espoused by unions – equity, justice and social cohesion – are under threat by this government.
Globalisation and market forces are transforming the social and economic environment of labour and questioning the relevance of established methods of income distribution. Guyana’s new found oil and gas economy has brought undue economic burdens on to the workers of Guyana. The rise of income inequalities both within and across different industries- manifested through segmented labour forces and polarized union environment- is beginning to threaten the very stability of our society. The voice of an anguished majority, either excluded or marginalised from the ‘one Guyana’ economy, remains to be heard.
Government through their propaganda machinery continues to argue that unions and their leaders are dead and have no place in modern Guyana. This is far from the truth-the intellectual and political leadership for the new labor oil and gas context should come from the trade unions.
We are organised entities with significant social capital and shared values. We have developed the right agenda: poverty eradication, full employment with workers’ rights and social cohesion. We have impeccable credentials in analysing and in dealing with crisis situations. We have adopted the right method: empowerment of people, particularly women. Unions are at the heart of empowerment: empowerment is capacity building, training, and organisation.
The Guyana Trades Union Congress is one of the biggest empowerment institutions in this country. In my opinion there are important preconditions to be met before unions become major players influencing social policy outcomes at the national level. First and foremost, it begins with a government that believes in the value of unions. I am not convinced that this government sees any value in a union that they cannot control. Second, unions have to equip themselves to be seen as spokespersons of the broader concerns of society. Third, they need to build the necessary organizational base and political support for influencing outcomes both at the national and international levels. These are major challenges and it is important that unions have clear perspectives on their implications.
Chairperson, the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) wrote President Irfaan Ali seeking an urgent meeting on the disrespectful and insulting 7% wage hike for public servants and contending that a higher award should have been made in keeping with the sum allocated in this year’s budget. As far as my knowledge serves, there has not been an acknowledgement of receipt of this letter. This is the posture of the government to us, non-responsive and dismissive.
I use this opportunity to remind the government that the imposed increase conflicts with government’s obligations under the constitution and the trade union recognition act. We remind the ‘one circle’ regime that the legally binding memorandum of agreement for the avoidance and settlement of disputes between the GPSU and the ministry of public service is on the record and should be respected.
We take this opportunity to remind the Jagdeo/Ali cabal that the Constitution, Laws of Guyana, International Labour Organisation conventions, particularly Convention 151 Labour Relations (public service), which was unanimously ratified by the Parliament of Guyana and are in force, together with all legally binding agreements, must be respected.
The government’s posture will not change but we will continue to fight to ensure that workers get their fair share in this oil and gas economy. The government will do what they must and we will do what we must to get employment justice for our members
Venezuela claims at this time
Friends, permit me to draw to your attention, the mischief that is being created by our neighbors on the western border. As you know, Venezuela has returned with its baseless claim which has been with us for decades. On this issue, we stand in firm support of the government’s efforts to resolve this matter. Our arguments with the government, end at the border where there are foreign enemies. We stand as one in the interest of country and the people of Guyana. We are of the firm view that the 1899 Arbitral Award is the final and perfect settlement of this controversy. We affirm that international law must be respected. We believe that the ICJ process must be respected and the outcome should be accepted. We are sure that Guyana’s borders have been settled a long time ago and we should never give up a single blade of grass .
We consider this issue to be a serious and existential matter.You must disabuse yourself of any notion that this controversy has nothing to do with the trade union movement in Guyana. First, our members and workers who reside within the regions that are part of this ridiculous claim are anxious and fearful about the developments. Second, the possible economic implications of this controversy on the trade union movement and its workers cannot be ignored. Third, the controversy involves a controversy which needs to be resolved. This is the essence of what trade unions are all about. We resolve controversies between the employer and employees. The government would be well advised to seek out our expertise on these issues.
To that end, I am pleased to report to you that we did not waste any time in providing our services to the government. Allow me to repeat the recommendations which we have submitted to the Government of Guyana on this matter in 1998:
We recommended-the establishment of “a fixed body” comprising specially trained and qualified foreign service officers and specialists in international law, languages, defense policy, hinterland development and other relevant disciplines to continually monitor and make recommendations on the status of Guyana’s frontiers;
We recommended-collaboration between the departments of government and international affairs at the university of guyana and state institutions responsible for the formulation and execution of
We recommended-the development of modern and reliable communication links between frontier communities and the capital; vocational training schemes for hinterland and frontier communities designed to equip residents for employment which may evolve from local or foreign investment;
We recommended-sustained supervision of trans-frontier trade activities to ensure that these are conducted in a manner that is consistent with the national interest; the creation of a regime of special incentives to encourage local investments in hinterland communities and more particularly at frontier locations; the planning and execution of a sustained public information initiative to sensitise Guyanese residing in frontier to the territorial claims against Guyana.
We recommended-the formulation and execution of development plans designed to reduce the dependency on hinterland-based Guyanese on neighbouring states;
We call for-the creation of a youth empowerment scheme which creates incentives for young people to occupy the hinterland of Guyana with a view to the establishment of viable and sustainable hinterland communities;
We called for-the cultivation of a culture of professionalism and excellence in the field of diplomacy in Guyana in order to properly refine Guyana’s most effective weapon in the defense of its territorial integrity- the diplomatic weapon; the rehabilitation of Guyana archives on frontier issues, particularly those documents which relate to Guyana’s territorial integrity.
We call for-official recognition of the role of Guyana’s mining community and other communities engaged in economic activities in the frontier regions in the defense of Guyana’s territorial integrity; the formal introduction into the schools’ curriculum of courses of studies on Guyana’s frontiers and including studies on the territorial claims against Guyana; government support for economic activities, particularly agricultural pursuits, undertaken in the hinterland of Guyana; practical support for efforts by the first peoples to maintain their heritages in a sustainable manner.
GTUC believes these recommendations are still useful and for this reason are placing them in the public domain.
Comrades, the government’s posture towards us were clearly demonstrated in 2019 when the minister of labor delivered a regrettable speech at an AmCham event. He alleged that in all his conversations with the union, there is only talk about pay increases and nothing about the conditions of workers.
Mr. Hamilton went on to lecture that wages and the conditions of workers are twin issues that cannot be separated.
While we welcome the formation of a ministry of labor, we cannot accept when the leadership that ministry chooses to misrepresent us.
We will take no lectures on conditions of workers from a ministry that protects the employers at the expense of workers.
If the minister wants to talk about the conditions of workers, we can have that conversation.
The first question I want to put to the minister is: where is the revised occupational health and safety policy? In 2019, the policy was created but after all this boasting about an expanding economy, there has been no revised OHS policy.
One would have thought that this Jagdeo/Ali led government would have seen the big picture and introduced some scheme to ensure there is effective enforcement of occupational health safety standards and statutes, but I guess that is impossible when you lead for friends, family and favourites. At the heart of the OHS issue, is the endemic problem of child labor. In the pre-pandemic period, Guyana had a 20.1% child labor rate. We are finished with the pandemic but yet, our kids remain at risk on the labour market.
Friends, we continue to note the government posture towards us: they are dismissive and unresponsive, but we will remain steadfast in our mission.