Guyana: GAWU general strike shuts down the sugar industry

GUYSUCO surprised at strike action-stand to lose 3,000 tonnes of sugar
By Clifford Stanley – The Guyana Chronicle.
Workers throughout sugar belt downed tools yesterday in response to a strike call by Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) in protest against a proposed 6% wage increase offered by the Guyana Sugar Corporation (G UYSUCO) for 2007.
Reports stated that nearly 100% of the workers represented by GAWU throughout the industry responded to the strike call, which severely affected harvesting and factory operations, effecting an almost total shutdown of the industry.
The union is demanding a wage increase for 2007 at just over 12%.
At a press conference hosted by GUYSUCO yesterday, Human Resources Director, Mr. Jairam Petam said that the President of GAWU Mr Komal Chand had communicated to him that the Union would be back at the negotiating table on tomorrow which suggests that the general strike may be of two days duration.
Senior GUYSUCO officials disclosed that a two-day strike will cost production losses of 3,000 tonnes of sugar in this autumn crop now in its sixth week.
Petam said that GUYSUCO was willing and anxious to resume negotiations with the Union but would not do so until there is a full resumption by the workforce.
Chairman of the GUYSUCO Board of Directors Mr. Ronald Alli said yesterday that the GAWU action had taken the corporation by surprise.
He said that the corporation and the union had held their third meeting on Monday and there had been no indication from union representatives that a general strike was imminent. “These are the preliminary stages of negotiations and strike action at such an early stage has been totally unprecedented,” he said.
During the press conference yesterday GUYSUCO officials deplored the strike action stating that it was ill-conceived given the many grave challenges currently facing the industry.
Chairman of the Board of Directors Mr Alli said: “This is a time when the corporation is facing challenges including the cuts in the prices of sugar by the European Union which started last year and equates to a loss of $1 billion per year.”
“We are facing another cut in prices of 36% within the next two years,” he said adding: “The sugar industry is at the crossroads and needs all stakeholders to pull together to implement the national action plan for sugar to ensure that the industry survives and has a future.”
“Ignoring the grievance procedure, calling an industry wide strike is hurting the corporation and putting at risk all the good work and investments to date. It is not the way forward” he said.
He said that further repetition of this type of action will do severe harm to the industry and cause every worker to lose out.
Mr. Alli said that all stakeholders should recognize that the fruits of the industry must be shared among not only the workers but the country as a whole and the industry itself in terms of ensuring its sustainability.
He said that one immediate effect of the strike could be the inability of the Corporation to finance capital programmes planned for the rest of the year. “I can’t over emphasise that this two-day strike will result in the loss of 3,000 tonnes of sugar. It will force the corporation to stop all capital works and programs and this will put the industry at greater risk of break down and stop the industry from investing the required funds back into the industry.
“It puts in jeopardy the delivery of sugar to the EU and our other markets at a time when we are asking for more access,” he said.
Mr Jairam Petam said that the losses being suffered included the loss of the quality of sugar being produced because canes lose their sucrose content rapidly after maturity.
The opportunity losses include the loss of the currently extremely favourable weather conditions for harvesting.
Petam stressed that the corporation was still recovering from the unseasonal rains in recent months and added:“If we lose these very good weather conditions we may not be able to beat the November/December rains.”
Finance Director Mr Paul Bhim said that challenges and restraints under which GUYSUCO was operating include the rising prices of fertiliser and fuel.
“These are the realities and we have been forced to do a very delicate balancing act as to where to put the money,” he said.
Chief Executive Officer Mr Nick Jackson said that the strike could have a domino effect on crops for next year since late harvesting will lead to late planting and more losses.
He also spoke about the challenge of increased freight costs which the corporation has had to grapple.
He disclosed that the cost of freight for transportation of sugar to Europe had risen from 50 Euros per tonne earlier this year to a current rate of 73 Euros per tonne.
“The freight market is very volatile and if we are to transport 100,000 tonnes to EU as we intend to later this year then freight costs could go up by as much $500M more than budgeted,” he said.
“We need to decide what we can do collectively to meet these challenges and these restraints,” he stressed.
Chairman Ronald Alli said that the industry was at a stage where there was a very dire need to recover from the losses flowing from the EU price cuts.
“There has to be a period of investment to replace the shortfall we will suffer and are suffering now and then a period for us to surpass previous levels of production so that we can get the benefits for the workers the industry and the country,” he said.
“This strike is hurting the industry. I wish to urge all workers to return to work so that wages negotiations can reach a speedy and satisfactory conclusion.”.

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