At a meeting held at Leonora, West Coast Demerara, in solidarity with sugar workers who have lost their jobs as a result of the closure of estates, Opposition Leader, Bharrat Jagdeo yesterday said his party had a viable plan for the industry.
Jagdeo led his supporters of mainly sugar workers in a march around the village and concluded at Alice Street where they gathered for the meeting.
The street is named after sugar worker, Kowsilla, called Alice who was crushed to death with a tractor in 1964 during a prolonged strike at the Leonora estate. Fourteen other females were seriously injured.
Jagdeo, who is also General Secretary of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), told the gathering that the PPP has a carefully laid out plan to get sugar back to viability and is willing to present it to the government.
He said though that he knows they would not listen to him because their decision to close the estates is political. Critics have argued that the sugar industry fell into rapid decline while Jagdeo was President and he was unable to reverse it. His government has also been accused of responsibility for the disastrous investment in the Skeldon Sugar Modernisation Project which has saddled the industry with an enormous debt and significantly raised its cost of production.
According to Jagdeo, government could not put $10B a year transitionally for sugar until it gets back on its feet, but could have given a large tax write-off to Demerara Distillers Limited and by extension, Banks DIH.
Jagdeo lamented that sugar has kept this country going from 1976 to 1996 and that the sugar levy was more than 20 percent of total government income.
From 1997, he said, while in government, the PPP stopped taking the sugar levy from the industry.
He said sugar had not been a burden until recently due to changes in the European Union when the prices were slashed by 36 percent and $8B a year was lost in revenue. He also admitted that there were management issues affecting the industry.
He said all of the sugar estates could have been kept open with workers getting their full Annual Production Incentive and four to five percent salary increases per year and also save 10,000 jobs.
Jagdeo pointed out that when the government said sugar was a burden on Guyana, he told them to forget the Commission of Inquiry that they spent $20M on and to do a feasibility study instead.
Further, he said, the sugar workers pay more than $10B in taxes so it would have made sense to keep the 10,000 jobs. By removing them, he emphasized, “Government would lose all of those benefits. But they are not thinking that way because the decision is political.”
He said that even when the government said they consulted with the PPP, Minister of State, Joseph Harmon had already written a letter to Florida-based businessman, Wesley Kirton to find interested parties to buy the entire industry or part of it.
Jagdeo was also critical of the government for taking away the $1.67B grant from schoolchildren. He noted that the tax write-off to the beverages companies could have kept the children’s grant going for 40 years into the future.
He also mentioned that the water subsidy that the government took away from 44,000 pensioners is less than the 100 percent salary increase for the ministers gave themselves after taking office.
He lamented that it is not like the country does not have money but that it is giving priorities in other areas.
The Opposition Leader also lambasted Minister of Public Security, Khemraj Ramjattan for having the worst record, with the burning to death of 17 prisoners last year and the destruction of the entire Camp Street prison a few weeks ago.
According to him, the PPP kept the prison safe for 23 years and that even though five prisoners had escaped in 2005, they lasted long without being recaptured because the prisoners were seen as freedom fighters and the army and police were unable to go into Buxton on the East Coast of Demerara.
He said since the jailbreak, his party said it was taking the side of law and order and supported the security forces in recapturing the prisoners because they want people to stay safe in their homes.
Meanwhile, he told the supporters to be vigilant and ensure that their names are on the voters’ list so that they can take the country back at the next general elections in 2020.
He said government officials are claiming that the Americans are on their side and have guaranteed them 10 years in office but he knows that is “not true because I have spoken to the people.”
He told the gathering too that closing of the sugar estates was a ploy to get them to migrate but assured them that “we are getting them out of office…”
With regards to the last elections, he said that even though it was not fair, government only defeated them by 4,500 votes.
Declaring that “we are going to take this [country] back,” he said, “one year later at Local Government [Elections], we swept the polls with 28,000 votes… But they didn’t say anything about that… If we go to the polls now there would be a 50,000 difference.”
Also making remarks at the meeting and speaking about the suffering of the sugar workers, were General Secretary of the Guyana Agricultural & General Workers’ Union [GAWU], Seepaul Narine and former Wales estate worker and GAWU representative, Gordon Thomas.