Joey Jagan, PM Nagamootoo urge workers not to buy ‘estates reopening’ promise
THE opposition’s promise to reopen sugar factories closed due to unprofitability continues to be ridiculed as “cheap political talks’ to win votes at the upcoming elections.
Opposition Leader, Bharrat Jagdeo, had said if the PPP wins the next elections, it will find a way to reopen those estates, so as to put people back to work. “We will explore all forms of partnerships to get that done, plus innovative financing and investments so people can return to providing for their families,” Jagdeo said. Jagdeo’s comments were repeated by PPP’s Presidential Candidate, Irfaan Ali, who said the party will reopen shuttered estates, even as he continues to dodge specifics on how they plan to go about that without further sinking the industry. Government, as part of an effort to rekindle the sugar industry and return it to viability, had closed Wales (West Bank Demerara), Enmore (East Demerara), Rose Hall and Skeldon (East Berbice) Sugar Estates.
Only last Wednesday, hundreds of sugar workers led by their unions, protested in front of the Ministry of the Presidency calling on the government to intervene in the matter of wage increases.
Prime Minister, Moses Nagamootoo, during a recent radio interview on Benschop Radio, said that the government cannot automatically intervene and treat sugar workers as public servants, as the sugar industry is managed by an independent corporation, the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) which is presently trying to rise to profitability, as production remains very low; hence its inability to raise salaries. Sugar workers, he said, are a category of workers under the corporation and despite this, the government, which he described as caring and compassionate to them, has spent billions of dollars from the treasury, to keep the very same aggrieved workers, in their jobs.
He urged the sugar workers to not be used as a political football by the opposition. “Don’t listen to them about reopening of the sugar estates. It was they, through corruption and mismanagement for 23 years caused the sugar industry’s downfall in the first place.” He said sugar workers “must never ever believe the lies that are being peddled that we (Coalition) shut the sugar industry down, the industry was dying, what we did was rescue it, we saved the jobs of 10, 000 sugar workers…this government has been fair and compassionate…this government has given a bailout from the treasury to give the sugar workers, to keep the industry going,” Nagamootoo posited.
PPP IGNORED WARNING
Reminiscing on how it all started, Nagamootoo said the PPP Government, of which he was a part of, knew that sugar was dying a very fast death, more so when the European Union began to subsidize farmers to commence diversification. At that time sugar prices dropped 36 percent. “During the Jagdeo period, we were acutely aware that sugar, at least cane sugar, didn’t have a viable future. I recalled very clearly he said he wanted to modernize the sugar industry…in 2010 Jagdeo spent US$200M to modernize the Skeldon Sugar Factory which is now a white elephant,” Nagamootoo affirmed.
During the negotiations for the loans to modernize the industry, the Opposition Leader, the prime minister said, put his friends and cronies to do so and the GuySuCo board became highly politicized, headed by former President, Donald Ramotar. It was this time the PPP threatened to derecognize the union (GAWU), and he (Nagamootoo) became a victim of threats to be expelled from the party if he went ahead with his plans to expose the PPP, through written articles.
The Prime Minister stressed that the industry was indebted to the tune of $85B and was running on handouts. “The PPP, then, had started the process of factory closure. They also tried implementing a sugar refinery and the subsidizing of the product, all so they can keep their base satisfied. While doing so, public servants and other sectors suffered, with its workers benefitting from nothing more than five percent increase. ….that was because traditionally, historically, the base of the sugar industry, has voted for the PPP, a majority of the people in the sugar industry were of Indo-Guyanese origin and traditionally I would say from the 1950s, supported Jagan. So they were using that as a voting machine. Jagdeo wanted to suppress criticisms, of the fact that they could not turnaround the sugar industry, so they were the ones who started to look around to see how they could divest the industry,” Nagamootoo related.
DON’T BE USED AS POLITICAL FOOTBALL
The Prime Minister said it is with the same aim, that the PPP again is promising to reopen sugar estates, “something they fully well know, will be detrimental to the economy of the country.”
Prime Nagamootoo said it is this government’s vision to create a level playing field for all workers and by extension all Guyanese, irrespective of their political affiliation or their ethnicity. “The love of the government goes beyond sugar workers and that is why strides have been made to save $10,000 of them while also giving incremental increases and addressing the needs of all public servants. This year public servants received a nine percent increase, which reflects an over 70 percent increase over the last four years.”
PM Nagamootoo said before making the decision to close the estates, the government gave $1B each month to pay sugar workers. “We did that consistently and we did that consecutively for 38 months and we realize now, that you could not bring down the entire economy just subsidizing sugar, you needed to take a drastic division, to save the part of the industry.”
He said too that those workers who were laid off did not leave empty-handed, but were given redundancy payment to start up small businesses, such as fishing and farming. Some were also given plots of land to farm, while some were employed in other sections and departments in the Ministry of Agriculture. Government, the prime minister said, is also working with plans that are doable and reasonable, since GuySuCo still has a debt of $85B. “We can diversify, but definitely not go into an all-out reopening the sugar estates…You have to plan how to develop the economy, how to grow the economy, how to diversify the economy, how to bring a collaboration and partnership with investors into the economy and you will have to have a lot of confidence in developing the economy. This is what we have been doing in the past four years, we have restored confidence in Guyana, we have restored the image of Guyana, as a stable country, as a peaceful country, we have protected the sovereignty of this country…” Prime Minister Nagamootoo said.
NOTHING IN 23 YEARS
Meanwhile, weighing in on the issue, Joey Jagan, son of the late PPP founder, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, said the PPP has done nothing during their 23 years in power to diversify Guyana’s sugar industry. He said, instead, that party left the sector bankrupted and in ruins. “The leader of the opposition, Bharrat Jagdeo, showed that he does not care about sugar workers,” Joey Jagan said.
Jagan addressed the issue of the sugar industry and the many promises that the PPP is currently making to revive the industry, during an interview with political activist, Mark Benschop, last Friday night, on his radio programme – Straight Up. “My father, the great Cheddi Jagan, always told me that you should always be truthful to the people. Always keep close to the people. Mr. Jagdeo is far away from the truth and far away from the people when he talks about the sugar industry. Jagdeo doesn’t have any concerns for the sugar workers, he just wants them to vote for him,” Jagan asserted.
Jagan reemphasized that Jagdeo and the PPPC’s track record with the industry evinces the lack of concern that the party has had, over the years, for workers in that industry. “We should have diversified sugar long ago. People should deal with the truth, and Mr. Jagdeo should be the first to face the truth that he was in power for all this time and he, and [former President Donald] Ramotar, they did nothing for the sugar workers,” Jagan noted. “All he has to do is talk about Skeldon and what happened there. US$250M down the drain, how did it help the sugar workers? I still can’t fathom it.”
When the PPPC was ousted from government in 2015, the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) was operating at a loss, with billions in government subventions being pumped into the industry annually to sustain its operations. “GuySuCo and the sugar industry didn’t become bankrupt when the coalition came in, GuySuCo had been bankrupt for years now, this didn’t just happen recently. They were bankrupt all the time and what did they [the PPP] do? They brought in a man called Raj Singh from New York. Raj Singh is a fake, he runs back to New York,” Jagan said.
EU SUGAR SUPPORT
The PPPC is still to account for some Euro166.67M ($34.4B) that was given to Guyana between 2006 and 2015, by the European Union (EU) and was expected to go to programs that mitigated the effects of the declining sugar industry. “Jagdeo never made any attempt whatsoever to diversify our agriculture economy. Just go and check. I’m not making anything up,” Jagan noted.
To return the industry to profitability, GuySuCo took the decision to close a number of sugar estates over the years, leaving three in operation: Albion, Blairmont and Uitvlugt. GuySuCo now intends to construct a white sugar plant with the aim of producing some 55,000 tonnes of white sugar per annum. Jagan believes this is a step in the right direction.
“Sugar from my knowledge has a future in Guyana but only if we can specialize it into fine white sugar because we have the best molasses in the world, and the molasses are the foundation of the industry. We can produce high-class sugar,” he said. Jagan stressed that he believes the sugar industry is in the right hands under the coalition APNU+AFC government.