Thursday, June 16, 2016
GEORGETOWN – June 16 marks the 68th anniversary of Enmore Martyrs Day. Since 1976, when this Monument was built, we come here to lay wreaths and make tributes to the memory of the five sugar workers, who were killed in 1948 by colonial police.
Today, I again pay tribute to the Enmore Martyrs – Pooran, Surujballi, Rambarran, Harry and Lallabagee – on behalf of the President, the Government and people of Guyana.
I also wish to salute the relatives of the “Enmore Five” whose lives were taken in the long history of struggles for better working and living conditions, as well as for trade union, political, civil and human rights.
The Enmore Martyrs were the last to suffer that fate under colonialism, but lives were also taken in post-colonial times as well, during struggles in defence of rights that have been won by their sacrifices.
In 1948 the Enmore Martyrs were claiming rights to vary the condition of work and to join a trade union of their choice which existed in the then ” Mother Country” – Great Britain. It was from that time that it became evident that the fight for industrial rights was linked to the fight for political rights, which was to have universal adult suffrage, self-government and, eventually, independence.
That fight linking economic rights with political independence was spearheaded by the country’s foremost nationalist leader, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, even before the formation of the then united People’s Progressive Party (PPP), which was the mother of all mass-based parties in Guyana.
Today they have become, at the top of the mountain, a fire that has led the way for an entire generation of freedom fighters. It was their act of rebellion, their act of revolt, their act of defiance, that have made them enter history and the heart and action of successive generations of men and women.
It must be of some comfort to descendants and relatives that the Enmore Five did not die in vain. Their efforts paved the way for improved working conditions in the sugar industry, as well as in other sectors of the economy.
Their struggle resulted in statutory recognition of all unions that enjoy the confidence of their members; in collective labour bargaining between employers and the recognized unions over wages and benefits; and a broad menu of labour laws that regulate minimum wages, holidays with pay, termination of employment, old age pension, national insurance and social benefits.
The 1948 sacrifice ignited the fire that led to Independence of our country from Great Britain; to Republican status; to Constitutional Reforms that enshrined superior rights for all working people and other social strata of our multi-ethnic, plural society.
Our entire history in Guyana has been one of struggle from slavery through indentureship, in the colonial as well as post-colonial times.
The older people who look back at what was, would say that “dis time na lang time”. While our country has not found the answers to all of our problems of under-development and ethnic inclusion, Guyana still has come a far way.
We know, however, that central to all we did, all we are doing and will do, that has changed and will changed our lives, is one word: SUGAR
It has long been recognized that the sugar industry itself has been under-going its own struggle how to change and transform, to remain profitable, or even to survive.
In 1636, there were some 400 sugar plantations. This was reduced to 238 in 1829. After free labour under slavery ended, and the planters had to find paid, immigrant labour, there were widespread plantation closures.
By 1922, the sugar estates were reduced 39. This declined to 18 by 1967 and 11 in 1976. In 1978, it was reduced to 10.
Then in 1986 the Leonora factory was closed, followed in 1987 by Houston/Diamond.
LBI factory was shut down in 2011.
This year, 2016, GUYSUCO planned to merge the LBI factory operations with Enmore, and the Wales factory operations with Uivtlugt.
This will reduce the number of factories to only 7.
GUYSUCO has explained that the cost of producing sugar has risen because both the Wales and Enmore factories were grinding at half capacity.
We have learned that the cost of production of sugar on the Demerara estates rose from 30 cents US per pound (G$60.00) before 2011 to 41 US cents. In 2013, it jumped to US54 cents (G$108.00) per pound while Guyana was selling sugar at US16 cents (G$32.00) per pound on the world market.
The sugar industry has been making tremendous losses as a business. To survive, it cannot rely on Sugar alone.
Since the mid-1980s, the plan was to diversify production. There were plans for other crops, for aquaculture or fish farms, for dairy industry.
Apart from diversification, the option for privatization was also on the table. After nationalization, Booker Tate Ltd was brought back to prepare the sugar industry for privatization.
Either way, diversification or privatization, employment levels in the sugar industry would be affected.
No one wanted, or still wants, to put any sugar worker out of job. We face a crucial crossroad: we will be damned if we don’t do anything; and damned if we do something.
BUT DOING NOTHING, WILL SPELL DISASTER. This is the core of the Report into the Sugar Industry which was commissioned in July, 2015. This Report is now before the Economic Services Committee of the National Assembly, and we hope that all parties would consider it and give their views on the recommendations.
THE COI HAS WARNED THAT IF STEPS ARE NOT TAKEN SOON, NOT ONLY WILL SUGAR PERISH. IT COULD TAKE THE ENTIRE ECONOMY DOWN WITH IT.
Twenty years ago, in 1996, the National Development Strategy (NDS) warned that the costs of keeping employment in the sugar industry was going to bring the industry down.
In order to survive, GUYSUCO was existing on credit and borrowing. The sugar debt rose from $55.3 Billion in 2006 to $91 billion in 1991. In 2014, it was $118 billion.
Several strategic reviews were done and turn-around plans were proposed. The strategic reviews between 1994 and 2004 promoted modernisatioin of the industry and the construction of a new factory at Skeldon.
The previous President, Dr. Bharrat Jagdeo, had said that sugar was dead without Skeldon.
Guyana pumped some $50 billion in the Skeldon factory, which is limping along and cannot stop the paralysis that has hit the sugar industry.
The sugar industry has been put on life-support. Every year since 2011, Parliament has been voting huge sums as BAILOUT package. About $60 billion from the National Treasury has been diverted to pay wages to GUYSUCO workers.
Last year and this year, Our Coalition Government has voted $21 billion to bail the industry out.
Today, when we look at the sugar industry, we wonder what it would take to transform the crude labour that it requires. In the time of the Enmore Martyrs, it was found that the system of “cut and load” was animal-like work. They wanted a system of “cut and drop”.
Today, we are spending billions and billions of dollars to keep a similar system in place, to keep thousands of our working people trapped in back-breaking routines.
There is no doubt that we must keep the best land under sugar and make high-priced products. We must invest in and modernize the best factories to produce at less costs, and to make not only sugar but ethanol and more molasses for the alcohol industry. We must divest our estates of lands that are no longer profitable for sugar, and include peasant cane-farmers and agro-processors in the production chain.
That is why we must shift to value added products. We need to produce more refined and packaged sugar.
Guysuco must diversify to include aquaculture, cultivation of legumes, fruit crops, citrus, dairy and livestock farming.
Lands can be given to workers who grow and supply Guysuco with vegetables, fruits and milk. Guysuco must provide packaging AND handling facilities, and marketing.
Today, we must have a new vision and we must be bold, courageous, like the Martyrs to take them forward.
My ancestors first arrived in British Guiana from South India in 1847. I was born here, on this soil, 100 years later. It is in their name, and from the sacrifice of the Enmore Martyrs for a better day, that I embrace the new vision. My Government is ready to transform the sugar industry, to diversify plantation lands, and open up new opportunities for wealth creation and sustainable livelihood in the sugar belt.
GUYSUCO HAS A NEW BOARD and it must intensify consultations with workers and related organisations. The sugar industry must not become a political football. We need consensus on the new direction.
I today invite all stake holders – the workers, their unions, the political opposition, business and investors – to be part of this new vision, to be part of this new, vibrant Guyana!