The GAWU weighed whether it should offer a response to Mr Earl John’s letter titled `Unions must be required to be equal and productive partners if reconstruction of sugar industry is to be successful’ which appeared in the August 21, Stabroek News. He offered his perspectives to our Union’s response to Ms Akola Thompson’s column.
In opening his batting, as it were, Mr John speaks about the reduction of the number of estates between the 1745 and 2010. The author points out the substantial decline in the number of plantations as he seeks, in our view, to cleverly contend that the more recent closure of estates were a continuation of that evolution. To level such contentions in abstract we hold tends to obscure the reality. The letter writer fails to acknowledge that advances in technology and productivity allowed the many smaller factories to be amalgamated into larger, more efficient units. Our research informed us that in 1885, sugar production in then British Guiana reached approximately 48,400 tonnes when 200-odd factories existed. This must be contrasted to 1976 when sugar production climbed to some 330,000 tonnes with 11 factories in existence. In the period, the number of operating units went down by 95 per cent but production went up by some 580 per cent.
There is next a subtle justification for the employment of retirees in the factory department of the Corporation. Mr John contends this was necessary to replace lost skills. But our contention remains whether the recruitment of these personnel really helped. The reality is factory performance and efficiency worsened under their watch. Now we know the letter writer would want to argue that the newly rehired personnel were dealt a bad hand as they inherited faulty factories. However, let us extinguish that thought right away. The factory sub-report of the costly Commission of Inquiry into the sugar industry as it regards the now operable estates did not express alarm about those factories. While they did not paint a necessarily rosy picture at no time did they share the view that the factories were in danger of collapse! Unfortunately, the same cannot be said now. So it begs the relevant question what value did these ‘valuable’ personnel bring to GuySuCo?
Mr John goes on to speak about costs for certain services and benefits the industry offers which he pointed out came from the generosity of the Management. In advancing his contention we are told that the “…Venn Commission Report… stung the conscience of the employers…”. But again the letter writer in advancing his perspective chooses to ignore that five (5) sugar workers were gunned down. He fails to acknowledge that sugar workers were on strike for nearly two (2) months after the planters arbitrarily changed their conditions-of-work. He mentions the recommendations of the Venn Commissions but sidetracks from their findings which described the inhumane conditions workers and their families were made to endure or the harsh economic burdens that were placed on their backs which practically made them beholden to the plantocracy. So it’s quite easy to blow your trumpet and talk about the seeming generosity of the planters but yet turn a blind eye to impetus.
The letter writer next speaks to strikes. But let us remind Mr John that former Minister Keith Scott during the 2018 Budget debate took great pride to point out that strikes in the industry fell by nearly half at that time. Moreover, GuySuCo’s own data for the 2020 first crop indicated that strike days equated to 1.7 days per worker. This can hardly bring the harm Mr John exclaims about. But it goes to remind that no matter how much things change the more they remain the same. As in the colonial period as is in the more recent periods, workers are the chief scapegoat blamed for all the maladies. Logically no worker wants to strike, he/she wants to work and earn but, at the same time, he/she wants to be treated fairly and receive decent pay for a day’s work. The problem is that we have seen over the last few years, a consistent effort to target the workers and just conditions. On this score, we saw Mr John touting the Annual Production Incentive (API) which incidentally was suspended during his most recent stint in the Corporation.
Mr John concludes expressing the view that he didn’t completely agree with the way the estates were closed. This is an admission the learned gentleman had shared before and reiterated now. While the sentiments are recognised we wonder where these expressions were as thousands of workers were pushed onto the breadline with hardly any clue of their future direction. It’s easy to reflect and express thoughts about what should and could but to stay silent at the time when your voice could have probably made a difference or at the very least sounded further concern, says a lot in our view. So while we welcome Mr John’s view, we consider it too little, too late.
We must share, however, Mr John’s view that the Unions must be treated as equal partners. Indeed, this must be a relevant feature to guide the rebuilding of the industry. We are hopeful that the walls GuySuCo erected and the haughtiness sent in the Unions’ and workers’ direction will be put in the past and the workers, their organisations and the company can begin to collaborate in the interest of the industry which we all care so deeply about.