A series of three workshops in Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo reached about 90 delegates from GAWU and NAACIE, the IUF affiliates in the sugar sector of Guyana, where main topics were the role of the shop-stewards, elements of financial analysis used in collective bargaining (at a moment when GAWU was in wage negotiations with GuySuCo), and HIV/AIDS, a topic which has become a permanent feature in all IUF global sugar activities in the Caribbean and Africa. In addition, the participants heard a presentation on the IUF project in the sugar and banana sectors in the region.
The workshop in Demerara took place from 19-20 Aug. at the GAWU Headquarters in Georgetown; the Berbice workshop from 21-22 Aug. at the training centre of Albion Sugar Estate, and the Essequibo activity on 23 Aug. at the Caribbean Rice Mills, with attendance of rice workers, as part of the work in agriculture in the E/S Caribbean. The workshops were also attended by a delegate from UAWU-Jamaica and BWU-Barbados, and the IUF global sugar coordinator.
The workshops took place when regional discussions on the signing of the new Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA) between the European Union (EU) and the Cariforum were ongoing and the government of Guyana had expressed their disappointment with the new arrangement. In fact, a session during the Demerara workshop (20 Aug.) was held at the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre which heard a presentation by Guyana’s president Barrath Jagdeo.
The special session with the President of Guyana was attended by the participants to the Demerara workshop, members of the GAWU negotiation team, as well as invitees from the Guyana trade union movement and civil society groups. President Jagdeo said that in the government’s perspective the new EPA represents a step backwards in the EU/Cariforum relations, which are supposed to focus on development. The new EPA demands the opening of key sectors, like communication and financial services, which in countries like Guyana would be easily taken over by European companies, given the virtual absence of competition in such markets. An issue directly related to the work of the Guyanese sugar unions and the IUF is that the sugar sector is also changing rapidly, after the 36 percent cut in the preferential price by year 2010. It was not a surprise, therefore, that after the session on the EPA, President Jagdeo held an informal conversation on the future perspectives for the country’s industry with the participants to the workshop and the GAWU negotiating team. In the exchange, both sides stressed the importance of cane and sugar to the national economy, and the need for its good management. The government, said President Jagdeo, has shown its commitment to the industry, and the government has either made direct new investments or has supported the industry when negotiating fresh loans, such as in the case of the new Skeldon factory in Berbice. (NB: by early September, all members of Cariforum, except Guyana, have said that they would sign the new EPA. Guyana’s position is that they would renegotiate the EPA and they would sign only if the EU threatens with applying conditions of the General System of Preferences (GSP), which implies tariffs on Guyana’s exports to the EU.)
Trade union exchange
Another highlight of the series of workshops was the attendance of delegates from Jamaica’s UAWU and Barbados’ BWU, who made a presentation on the situation and outlook of the sector in their respective countries.
The situation in Jamaica’s cane and sugar sector is very fluid, particularly with regards to the divestment of the Sugar Company of Jamaica (SCJ); a process in its final stages, carrying a price-tag of USD 25 million. A Brazilian company, Infinity Bio-Energy, was the only bidder for the five SCJ factories, to which it was added the long-term lease on the cane fields controlled by the estates and the refinery of Pretrojam, which at present process Brazilian feedstock to produce ethanol for shipping to the United States. The trade in ethanol benefits from preferential treatment under the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI). The Brazilian group has said that their main objective is the production of ethanol, and that they are committed to produce some 60,000 tonnes of sugar per year, from a current installed capacity quoted at twice that volume.
The future of the cane and sugar sector in Barbados remains uncertain, facing a major competition for land from other sectors of the economy, such as tourism and housing developments. A project for a ‘multi-purpose’ facility, quoted at USD 150 million, is still on the planning stage, although several groups have said that the new cane-based industry would produce specialty and refined sugars, ethanol, and will also cogenerate electricity.
As part of the program, the overseas delegates and the IUF global sugar coordinator visited the new factory in Skeldon, a brand-new turn-key project, which is scheduled to enter into production in October. At full capacity, the factory would produce some 100,000 tonnes of sugar annually, which is a crucial element in the expansion program of GuySuCo.
Wage negotiations and strike
During the week of 19-23 Aug. cane cutters in several estates went on strike to press for their wage demands; and an industry-wide strike was launched on 26 Aug. GAWU, the union representing the striking workers, and the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) failed in reaching an agreement during the negotiations, even after having jointly requested conciliation by the Ministry of Labour.
The Chief Labour Officer had intervened on 18 Aug. and chaired three meetings with GAWU and GuySuCo before declaring a deadlock on 25 Aug. At that point GAWU was demanding a wage/salary increase of 14.25 per cent and GuySuCo offering 5.25 per cent. The official inflation rate for 2007 was 14 percent, which had not been compensated by the 8.5 percent increase granted last year.
GAWU says that GuySuCo has failed in maintaining competitive wage/salary rates, and the industry is experiencing a drop in the labour pool, which is reminiscent of the 1980s when the industry was unable to attract workers. The union also says that poor management is a major cause of the decline in production, which has fluctuated about 260,000 tonnes of sugar per year in the 2005-2007 period, compared to the 320,000 tonnes which it averaged from 2002-2004. In fact, the Ministry of Agriculture has launched an enquiry on the performance of GuySuCo, seeking to determine the causes that have led to the decline in production.
The government intervened three days after the strike started and mandated arbitration on the dispute. A three-person panel has been established to review the situation and make an award. GAWU is preparing their case.
News from GAWU: the construction of GAWU labour school continues, and the union expects work to be completed by late November this year. The school will allow GAWU to fully run their education programs with modern meeting and lodging facilities for their members. The school is being built next to the current headquarters on Main Street in Georgetown.