Today, May 1st, I bring you fraternal greetings from His Excellency, President David Granger, Prime Minister, the Hon. Moses Nagamootoo, and the entire Cabinet and Government and say unreservedly, and unequivocally, a special thank you to all of you gathered here for your tireless labours over the year. It is only appropriate and just that we commemorate and celebrate the achievements and the challenges, confronted and overcome every year, with a special day set aside just to say “thank you”, “well done” and “have fun and in your celebrations”.
Many countries throughout the world have set aside today, May 1st, to honour the struggles, sacrifices and achievements of workers whether by themselves or through organized bodies we call “unions”.
May Day recognises the sacrifice in sweat, blood and tears, the world over, of workers -both now and in the past who have laboured for a better life not just for themselves, but more so to build better nations. For countries like ours, with a history of enslavement and indentureship, May Day’s celebration takes on even more poignant significance because, here in Guyana, labour was extracted involuntarily by force for the most part and through oppressive and unfair conditions. We value therefore the testimonies of resistance and rebellion built up over the centuries that railed against any form of labour that strips or undervalues human rights and human dignity.
The Government of Guyana chooses today to return to the themes of “new labour” and a “new model” first adumbrated in 2016 by his Excellency the President at the 4th Triennial Delegates Conference of the Guyana Trades Union Congress. We recognise that the world is moving away from organised labour and that Guyana is not being bypassed in this regard. The theme of a new model for labour is in fact quote consistent with the theme for today’s celebrations which is – “Organising – Necessary Pre-Requisite in Building a Strong United Trade Union Movement”.
Last year in his address to Triennial Conference, President David Granger, wisely pointed us in the direction of the “new model” and opined that:
“A ‘new model’ of trade unionism is needed to build on these successes and promote 21st century trade unionism. Technology has rendered many jobs redundant and led to downsizing in many industries. Outsourcing has added to job losses. Globalization has led to jobless growth in some instances. These developments have weakened the trade union movement.”
Therefore as we go deeper and further into the 21st Century there is need for us to adapt in the way labour is organised and in the way the struggle for better labour is waged. It is imperative that the crucible of struggle produces not just about a better wage and a better working condition, but, ultimately, better relationships between unions; better relationships between unions and workers, and better relationships between workers, their unions, and the Government. In this new paradigm, the survival of organised labour and the nation-state as we know it, organised around a governmental structure, can best be insulated from the external threats and shocks that consistently bombard, provide an armour of protection and arm us with tools and weapons to adapt and fight.
No longer therefore must we consider the struggle here in Guyana to be “us” versus “them” but now “us” and them”. So there is need for a redefined relationship between workers, their representative unions and the government and we recall the biblical admonition that “two are better than one…and a threefold cord is not quickly broken”.
Again in President Granger’s words this ‘new model’ for new labour paradigm must be “aimed at restoring workers’ confidence and enhancing capacity-building of trade unions, must be considered. A new model is also needed to take account of changes in the job market.”
In a manner of speaking, we have to “go back to the future” to the time when political parties, government and the trade unions were better aligned and working in tandem – a time when each of the major political parties was an extension of a trade unions. We have to come full circle.
The President and Government of this Cooperative Republic of Guyana are ready to recommit to this new order – one in which we work as partners and not as contenders. Consider if you may the global realities of trade through the Internet and deliveries come to our doors in lighting speed. Consider if you will, the dwindling influence of trade unionism, and consider that in a few years this country will not only be a green state it will be an oil producing state. Where do we go from here is the question that must be answered and that answer can only come if we sit together and agree. The bounties are as extensive as the challenges are manifold. We simply cannot fail to prepare and we simply cannot fail to cooperate and draw closer to each other. The choice is ours and to government the actions we have to take are self-evident.
Brother Lincoln Lewis’ message which appeared in yesterday’s newspaper and entitled “Why We March” is a powerful statement, forcefully articulated in his own inimitable style, and reminds us that “the trade union movement is a creature of conflict that is functional for human development” and that “everything the workers have achieved was not without resilience and conflict.” These apt words of reminder should also be telling us that we have to adapt the manner of the conflict and reconfigure the methodologies and strategies being used. It is time for change!
We accept that there is a perennial distrust between employees and employer and that we have been offered and have accepted a matrix bequeathed to us that predisposes us to relate to each other in a contentious and sometimes antagonistic manner, but does it have to be so only because we are told it has to be so. There is a better way, but it requires courage and strength to achieve.
This year as we celebrate the worker of Guyana, that man and woman who makes all spheres of life, and living possible, we accept that the relationships we speak about are not in a perfectly healthy place and that there is unease even with some of government’s policies and programmes. I assure you that the discomfort we feel today will give way to pleasure tomorrow. To prepare us for the transition into a green state and to prepare for the windfall that is soon to come from petroleum revenues, it important that we bring some fiscal alignment and fiscal discipline to our spending, and to our relationships with each other. Your government is not oblivious to your struggles and neither is it uncaring and unresponsive to your needs. We ask for time and we ask for your engagement.
The world is changing at an alarming pace. Businesses are exploring new ways of conducting their affairs. Employers are engaged in research and experiments on how to cut cost, eliminate waste and thereby become more efficient. Governments and trade unions must do the same. In fact increased productivity which translates into Cutting Edge Performance has become a central focus of industry and government these days.
Failing to change will only result in us being out of synchrony with reality. In other words trade unions must be prepared to pursue a paradigm shift in which reasonableness, consensus and co-operation take the place of antagonism, conflict, rejections and bad faith bargaining.
I say these things at the risk of being accused of being anti-union, but let me hasten to say that despite the murmurings of a few, it is undeniable that this Government is pro-union and wants only what is best for the national good and the workers. Unions too must see the bigger picture and support the thrust for the greater good for the greater number and not cling to anachronistic ideas and notions that are evidently failing. These revelations which can easily be misconstrued as unfair criticisms are simply made to advise the unions that it is time to change for the better.
Just last week the United Nations Development Report-2016 was handed over to Government and I want to recommend that trade unions embrace and even adapt the theme of that report which is “Human Development for Everyone. It is not unusual for trade unions to see themselves functioning in a narrow sectoral context without much concern for what transpires beyond their spheres of endeavour.
Unions do not have a passive and superficial role to play in nation building, they have a strategic and integral role to play and they must make themselves available for nation- building in a collaborative manner.
At this juncture, on the eve of the second anniversary of the coalition government, we are particularly pleased and appreciative of the fact that we have been able to fulfill many of the promises we made in our 2015 manifesto under the leading “Industrial Relations and Labour Welfare”. For example, we have restored collective bargaining which had been relegated to the doldrums for more than two decades, and even though enough gains have not been secured, through that medium we can say that we are off on a grand start.
I am sure that many of you can recall that when we took office, the minimum wage in the public service was $42,703.00 but through the negotiation process and government’s own initiative, the Public Service minimum rate of pay now stands at $55,000 per month representing an increase of almost 30%.
A similar significant increase was effected to the minimum wage for the non-unionized Private Sector employees. They enjoyed an increase of 26% – which is the highest ever in the history of our county for that category of workers, who are now paid a minimum of $255.00 per hour.
Still within the realm of Labour Welfare, let us not forget that we have increased Senior Citizens Pension by almost 45% taking this to $19,000 per month!
We are fully cognizant of the fact that these increases are not fully adequate to satisfy the needs of our workers past and present but please be assured that we are doing the best we can is the present circumstances.
Being the caring government that we are we have not only laid a National Youth Policy in the National Assembly but we are also pursuing robust training programmes under the auspices of the Board of Industrial Training to equip our young workers to take their rightful productive and efficient places in nation building.
In 2015 a total of one thousand five hundred and forty (1540) youths were trained as tradesmen and artisans and in 2016 that number was increased by 3% to one thousand five hundred and ninety three (1593).
All of this is being done to ensure that there is always available an adequate supply of well trained, well equipped and well-disciplined workers to oversee our industries. I must therefore say to the trade union movement that it is time that government be fully supported in all of its initiatives designed for nation building.
Mr. Chairman, the APNU+AFC government has been saddled with the herculean task of putting in place the policies and programmes which are imbued with the capacity to mitigate, alleviate and liberate workers from the stress and distress to which they were condemned for more than two decades.
For example the Occupational Safety and Health Act, Chapter 99:10 provides for the establishment of a National Advisory Council on matters pertaining to Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH).
One of the functions of that Council is to advise the Honourable Ministers on policy guidelines for the benefits of workers in particular and the nation as a whole.
As I stand here today, it is with a heavy heart that I was reliably informed that on the assumption of office our government found that for several years that committee did not function and that in our opinion is tantamount to a “superlative neglect” and an abandonment of the rights and interest of the working classes of this nation.
To remedy such a shameful situation we wasted no time in appointing a NACOSH which has thus far been functioning creditably. I shall not bore you with the statistics pertaining to its achievements, but I can tell you it has contributed significantly to the crafting of a New Decent Work Country Programme for Guyana. Let there be no mistake, we are committed to protecting the health and safety of all workers in this country.
Comrades, another achievement which I want to remind you of, is the magnificent work which is being done by the National Tripartite Committee, in which the major stakeholders are fully involved. That body has thus far rekindled the interest of the social partners in issue of Social Dialogue. It is through that committee that we were able to successfully amend the National Minimum Wages Order which I mentioned earlier fixing the Minimum Wages in the Private Sector to $255 per hour.
It would be remiss of me if I fail to disclose that we are working assiduously to establish an Industrial Tribunal, whose function would include the speedy resolution of industrial differences resulting in Justice for workers, trade unions employers and even government itself.
We are convinced that with such machinery in place many employers and employing company would be unable to deliberately protract differences to the detriment of workers and trade unions alike.
The combined effects of these initiatives have certainly positively impacted the lives of the nation’s workforce.
We would not deny that trade unions have a role to play in every democratic society, but we believe also that it is time that they adopt a new approach in the conduct of their affairs.
Today is the workers’ day, today is your day, and I want to congratulate you on your achievements as you continue to overcome the many challenges along the way.
Having regard to the fact that Labour Day is the Workers’ Day, these celebrations are organized and executed by workers representative known as trade unions including the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC), and the (FITUG)
History has shown that the TUC has always played a key and critical role in these observances. The TUC, as the record shows, was formed in 1944 and from 1951 it led the charge and maintained the focus in the observance of May Day, but the theme which the TUC has chosen to govern today’s celebration, suggests that there is still work to be done and indeed it must always be so – there is no time and no place for slacking off or to resile from the tasks at hand.
I want to submit that all reasonable and right thinking Guyanese would join with me in congratulating the trade union movement and more particularly the TUC and the FITUG for having a joint and unified rally for the second consecutive year after many years of separation which resulted in the movement having dual rallies.
Trade Unions are indeed a main stakeholder in all of the programmes and initiatives that we have undertaken but I am not sure that they have done enough to support and effect the kind of change necessary for sustained economic growth and development.
Comrades, I wish to conclude by revisiting your theme and by submitting that indeed it is time to organize and to be re-organised so that trade unions can evolve into 21st century cutting edge organizations. There is an abundance of evidence which indicates that the influence and effectiveness of trade unions are declining at an alarming rate in North America, Europe, Australia, Canada and Guyana, among other states.
Relying on trade union membership as an indicator of the relevance of the movement, I find the following statement in the WINDSOR STAR, a British publication, to be quite informative. Under the caption “Rates of Unionized Workers falling; more women than men in unions”. The author Ms. Carolyn Thompson said: and I quote:
“Today a union member is slightly more
likely to be a woman, and working in an
office, school or hospital, while factory
workers, miners and other blue-caller
trades, have seen their union membership
fall over the past quarter century”.
These observations are neither unique nor specific to the UK alone but are equally applicable to many countries including, and especially, Guyana where women make up the significant portion of the labour force. In a few weeks we celebrate womanhood and motherhood on Mother’s Day and the Government of Guyana especially salutes women in the workforce and says thank you for your labours which never cease from the home to the office, and from the field to the factory.
With more women joining the Labour force, particularly in areas which were previously dominated by men, trade unions have to prepare and align themselves to better treat with issues of gender discrimination and sexual harassment, among others.
We are particularly pleased to recognize that at the moment, the President of the Guyana Trades Union Congress is a woman and it is my sincere hope that in the coming years we will find more women in more leadership positions in the unions.
After all, it is time that further structural changes to be made in the unions.
Comrades, it is time that all stakeholders and all social partners including the unions come together within and amongst themselves and with the Government, in a collaborative effort to build this nation and provide a good life for all.
I wish you all a happy May Day Celebration and say, it is time for change!
Solidarity Forever! Solidarity Forever!
I thank you and May God Bless the workers of Guyana, the Unions and this dear and green land of ours.
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