Even as mainly organized labour assemble at their various points today to march in silent resignation, listen to flat speeches from their leaders, numb their plight and pain with music, food and liquor produced by their colleagues for the profits of the investing class, the evidence so overwhelmingly confronting their membership on this Labour Day points to a movement that is in complete crisis, their numbers in decline, their leadership in disarray, their unity in tatters, and their very survival in question. Almost every issue that has faced workers recently, be it RUSAL’s attempt at union-busting; the teachers’ union imaginary giant leap; government’s withdrawal of Critchlow Labour College subvention; the de facto abolition of collective bargaining in the public sector; the CLICO-induced six billion dollar hole in the NIS financial statements, or politicking by some of the movement’s leaders, would make an excellent case study for any thesis on the Collapse of the Labour Movement in Guyana.
Yet, a country whose first two modern-day leaders came out of the bowels of the labour movement cannot find a single person with the interest and inclination to engage in such an exercise or produce a leader with the capacity to heal the rift, stem the tide, deliver hope or start the debate. Indeed even an intellectually curious economist, touting past working class credentials and harbouring future presidential ambitions confesses to an ignorance of the number of unemployed, while more truthfully demonstrating insensitivity to the plight of that class. The state of the workers is probably mirrored in the paucity of statistics compiled by the movement, academia, and the national institution with the duty to produce such data. We are after all in a market-based, low-wage economy in which the users of labour care only about the maximization of profit, whether at the expense of the state, the consumer or labour.
Physical and psychological blow
The Economic Recovery Programme introduced by Mr. Desmond Hoyte and his team dealt a physical blow to the public sector. The PPP/C has added the psychological coup de grace, crudely using the carrot and stick to compromise and destroy the leadership, not caring about putting even their own supporters on the breadline. In the not too distant past, the interest of the worker and the leader coincided to such an extent that leadership in the movement was merely a function, as they collectively and individually faced the same struggles and felt the same hardships. Now, the only thing they share is as occupants of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the interests not only having diverged but sections of the leadership having become the instruments of the exploiters, sorry I meant employers. What hope is there for those destined to remain workers or to be part of that pool of the unemployed or near unemployed – the unwaged housewife and single mother, the Amerindian made to depend on handouts from the coast, the rural poor on the goodwill of the “plantation” owners, the petty trader from meagre sales, and even the employed on remittances from abroad.
With such challenges facing the country, what prospects are there for the transformation of the economy into one that is competitive by regional and international standards, where businesses benefit from an expansion in aggregate demand, the economy from new investments, workers from new opportunities and the state from additional taxes? How do we escape the trap of having proudly marketed ourselves as a low wage economy characterized by low demand and low investments into a new and dynamic one, capable of delivering the standard of living compatible with basic human needs? How do we re-invent our educational system to make it serve their own advancements and the needs of industry and commerce, and yes, where would the resources come from? And how do we stem the migration of our brightest and even those not so bright?
Every issue or challenge that faces the worker or the member of the working class – whether employed, unemployed or under-employed – has direct and immediate implications for the employer, the economy and the country. A worker who is underpaid or undernourished is hardly likely to be a productive worker; the single parent earning no or low pay cannot provide for a learning child; the unemployed cannot contribute to enhancing aggregate demand. It is such a huge challenge that no one seems willing to admit, let alone confront it. Failure to recognise or confront it is more likely to lead to migration than solution and while with each person migrating the number of unemployed will fall by at least one unit, so too will demand for goods and services. It is the classic case of Catch 22.
The effects of the ERP, the money-driven privatization process that threw workers to the wolves, the introduction of a market-based economy in which social benefits are assigned no value, where the private sector is permitted not only to exploit labour but to corrupt and bribe public officials and the state, to evade taxes with impunity and to ignore laws and rules at their leisure, have combined to inflict a stifling effect on the economy.
The teachers union did not learn
As we approach elections 2011, the evidence is that the votes of the working class can either be bought or taken for granted. Economics or workers’ own personal circumstances it seems do not alter the voting dynamics, perhaps the only thing about labour that the political leaders seem to understand and then exploit. The teachers “settlement” is a classic case on this Labour Day. Let us look at it. In 2006, the government and the teachers union signed their first five-year pact (2006-2010) that included an annual 5% plus a one percent performance-based incentive, some non-cash benefits such as scholarships to 100 teachers each year, clothing allowance and duty-free allowance for one-off duty-free concessions for vehicles for 100 head teachers per year. It also included a housing revolving fund of $40M.
What was not given any prominence was that the Union was paid some money, the sort of sum given to GAWU last year as part of a “dispute settlement” resolution. President Jagdeo, who had been driving the negotiations for the government, found this was a small price for the government to pay for the union’s weakness and capitulation. It is not known how many head teachers benefitted from the duty-free concessions or teachers from the scholarships but what is certain is that the revolving fund was never set up.
For those teachers who were below the threshold for the payment of income tax at thirty-three and one third percent, the settlement will keep them in poverty. For those above, the net increase – assuming they all received the 1% incentive – was 4%, i.e. two-thirds of six percent. Over the five years, inflation averaged 6.5 %. In other words, the teachers at the end of the 2006-2010 deal were worse off than they were before, notwithstanding a gift made to them by Jagdeo in 2007. You would think that teachers would learn but clearly not their leaders.
Giant step – backward
Having been taken along in a game described by the union’s leadership as “tough negotiations” in which Jagdeo again played the leading role for the employers, the union which had sought a 15% increase, accepted a new five-year agreement providing for an annual five percent pay hike. On this occasion the goodies were a renewed agreement for the non-cash benefits that the government had failed to pay under the previous five year deal. Mr. Colin Bynoe, the union’s president in a clear slip of the tongue described the deal as a “giant step”. He left out the word “backwards”.
As Mr. Earl John, a human resources specialist pointed out in a letter in Friday’s Stabroek News, no negotiations were needed to get five per cent. That has become the standard gift from Jagdeo, confirmed by him at a press conference in October 2007 when he said of negotiations then taking place with the public servants: “If they are not concluded [soon] we are going to have to do like what we did in other years and make a payout to the public servants.”
With Mr. Bynoe’s giant step, 100 teachers will get house lots each year so that in one hundred and thirty years all teachers will have earned a house lot. And with the $40 million housing revolving fund, at even an average loan of $2 million per house, twenty of those teachers will be able to access the fund. Every other Guyanese it seems, their brother and their friend, is entitled to a house lot. For the teachers they have to agree to what in real terms is a five year wage freeze.
The result is that for the next five years, Guyana will continue to have the lowest paid teachers in the region; will invest hundreds of millions each year preparing Guyanese teachers for migration; both teachers and students will continue their high rates of absenteeism from the classroom; students will pass through the classroom rather than pass their examination; and the leadership of the teachers union can take a five-year sabbatical until just before the current agreement runs out.
Our teachers deserve better leadership and a more enlightened attitude from their employers than the kind of success Minister of Education Shaik Baksh could crow about. But the same can be said of many other unions, in the public as well as private sector. Ask any public servant of any achievement of their union in the past five years and they would be at a loss for a charitable answer. Ask the workers in the low paying shops, factories and farms what the labour movement has done for them and the instinctive answer will be nothing.
Ask the bauxite workers and you will be told that the government and the Minister of Labour Manzoor Nadir have colluded with RUSAL in union-busting. Ask other workers seeking union representation and they will tell you of impediments rather than empathy from the Trade Union Recognition Board. Ask the United Minibus Owners and they will tell you how the government brazenly engages in blacklegging operations. Ask the lecturers at the University of Guyana and they will tell you that like the rest of the public service, they too accept imposed salaries and conditions rather than defend their rights to bargain for adequate compensation for their services. For the workers, there are only questions and hardships. It is a short-term gain from an unfortunately near-sighted strategy by the government. In the end, the whole country loses, excepting the ruling class and the exploiters for whom the strategy seems designed.
The past decade has not been a good one for the workers. Today’s Labour Day will not change anything.