THIS past week Guysuco announced that it is retrenching 4,000 sugar workers based on recommendations contained in a State Paper on sugar that was reportedly agreed to by Cabinet. Minster Joe Harmon questioned the timing of the decision and bemoaned the fact that Cabinet’s approval was not sought. The PPP quickly jumped on the announcement with one PPP leader calling the action “racist.” Guysuco reiterated its commitment to restructure the industry to make it profitable.
I am a supporter of relieving the country of the sugar burden. But I recognized that the matter is a complex one whose resolution should be a national undertaking. The politics of sugar are buried deep in our ethno-racial politics and thus should not be taken lightly. Today, I repeat some observations I have made on this matter
We in Guyana are left behind only because sugar became trapped in our ethnic and political quarrels. Fifty years after independence we are now faced with the stern challenge about what to do about sugar. Production has declined from 300,000 tons in the 1960s to 207,000 tons in 2015 and a contribution of 3.5 percent to Guyana’s Gross Domestic Product. The global cost of sugar production averages 16 US cents per pound while Guyana does so at between 35 to 45 US cents per pound and sells it at 25 US cents per pound.
Guyana is not only recording a loss, but has been also subsidising sugar sold to Europe: GYD$12 billion in 2015; GYD$9 billion in 2016 and a projected GYD$18 billion in 2017.
From a purely business perspective, the Guyana Sugar Corporation is unsustainable, but on the other hand there are 16,000 workers and 300 service providers to the industry and sugar is still the third largest foreign exchange earner at 3.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product.
I agree with the PPP and others that diversifying out of sugar would have a near-term impact on the mostly Indian Guyanese workforce. But to not point out that the present government has continued the subsidy of the industry even as it searched for ways to get out of the historic hole leads me to question the objective of the leaders. If you are making a case of Indian suffering, at least lay all the facts on the table.
Its commonsense economics that if a poor economy such as ours continues to bury money in an unprofitable industry that is not able to generate enough to at least pay back the subsidy, then in the end the country, including the workers in the subsidized industry, suffers. Yes, sugar workers would have their jobs, but their wages and those of other workers would continue to be low; the government would have less to spend on other critical areas such as education, health care and infrastructure.
I am aware that this line of argument will not easily convince those who are about to lose their jobs. But the truth should be told. The Indianists should pressure the PPP and the government to devise a plan to guarantee the sugar workers an income during this period of transition. The fight should not be simply to save a dying sugar industry, but more importantly to guarantee sugar workers their daily bread while we root ourselves out of the sugar trap.
Directing sugar workers’ anger at the government while behaving as if the PPP has no responsibility for where things are, (are) unhelpful and deceptive. For 23 years, the PPP, in the face of all the signs that sugar was dying, did absolutely nothing to sensibly address the situation. The Indianists must remind the sugar workers that GUYSUCO under the PPP, threatened to de-recognize their union for standing up to the powers that be. This government has not done so.
To the government, I said the following: We can’t have the PPP in the communities rankling the anxieties and the insecurities and the other side is absent from the conversation. Where are the government leaders in the sugar belt, under the bottom-houses, and on the estates talking to the workers? Where are they? It is easy to criticise Mr. Jagdeo and the PPP for spreading doom, but what is the government doing to counteract that message of doom?
Sugar workers must be convinced that they have to give something, but the rulers also must be convinced that they have to give something, and you can’t work that out behind the backs of the people. You have to work that out with the people–sugar, labour and politics. It can’t be sugar and politics.
An African government overseeing the reorganisation of an industry that is grounded in Indian Guyanese is a recipe for anxiety. Afro-Guyanese are also affected because the conversation for them is that when the public service or when bauxite was going under there was not as much fuss; why the fuss over sugar.
Against that background, those who are in favour of retaining the industry in its current state and those who want to trim Guysuco’s operations down, are both correct. There are two sides of the sugar discourse. When one side talks about sugar being unprofitable, they are correct. When the other side talks about if you get rid of sugar, you would be hurting thousands of workers, they are correct. One of the single biggest failures of independence is that Guyanese have been unable to combine their discourses for the broad benefit of the country.
More of Dr. Hinds ‘writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com. Send comments to email@example.com