After a hiatus of almost seven years, this writer was in Guyana to launch a training program for GAWU organizers under a project supported by the Canadian union, Unifor. Appropriately, the initiative is entitled “Guyana Sugar Sector at a Critical Moment and Responsibilities of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU).” The training prepares GAWU members to tackle challenges arising from the so-called restructuring of the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo). For instance, if the already closed sugar estates are eventually sold and new operators/owners appear, labor practices will change.
A first group of thirty organizers from three estates attended a four-day program at the GAWU Labor School in Georgetown. The program had two blocks. One was a review of the global and regional sugar sector as the context for a restructured Guyanese sugar industry; a review that was completed with a “Situation and Outlook” presentation on GuySuCo. The second dealt with the role of unions and organizers in a changing environment, reviewed national labor laws and focused on communication skills and methods needed to maintain a strong and active union. A second group of thirty organizers will attend a similar program in late November.
The sugar sector in Guyana, overwhelmingly owned and controlled by the state through the long-time battered GuySuCo, is in the middle of a drastic (and dramatic) process of “restructuring.” From the eight sugar estates operating last year, five have been closed, three still working. Some 7,000 direct jobs have been lost.
It has been repeated ad nauseam that sugar is the economic, social and political backbone of Guyana; that is the single historical fact that has marked the country. At present, it might be that close to 15 percent of the population living in the country depends on sugar, with many thousands more linked indirectly to sugar. Hence the role of GAWU as a trade union that for decades has represented sugar workers.
Uitvlugt and Wales
On 3 September, a Monday, the writer visited Uitvlugt and Wales on the west bank of the Demerara river. The visit reminded him of Dicken’s opening sentence: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Uitvlugt looks to be a thriving company – using some cannibalized equipment from Wales – which, according to local sources, is improving efficiency and production. The visit included a tour of the factory and of the farming operations to meet with cane cutters, some of whom used to work at Wales. An optimistic air was evident at Uitvlugt.
The reverse was Wales. The abandoned factory, manned by one person and security guards, is a source of equipment for other GuySuCo estates because there seems to be some in-order equipment still available. The Wales visit was too short to talk to the population about how they are affected by the closure of the factory. In passing, however, some locals said that GuySuCo’s rice-growing project has failed and lands reverted to bush. The writer hopes to have an opportunity to talk to people and attempt an evaluation of the social impact of the GuySuCo’s “downsizing,” another name for “restructuring.”