Govt’s dismissal of sugar workers….Unions never agreed to privatisation proposals – says Chand….GAWU claims Harmon “misinformed” publicBy Shemuel FanfairGovernment’s payout of almost $2 billion as severance to thousands of dismissed sugar workers at the Rose Hall, Skeldon and East Demerara (Enmore) estates is scheduled to go ahead as planned, nearly one month after the entities shut down operations and staff was reduced to skeletal numbers. This was on Sunday confirmed by Agriculture Minister Noel Holder, who disclosed that this segment of payments will be finalised by Wednesday.“As far as I’m aware, everything will be paid off in full. All workers that have to be paid will be paid before Wednesday, before the end of the month,” Minister Holder highlighted.Earlier this month, it was disclosed to the National Assembly that dismissed sugar workers whose severance packages are $500,000 or less would be paid in full by January 31, and workers receiving in excess of aforementioned sum would attain 50% of their severance benefits.Questioned on possible setbacks or legal challenges that could be mounted against this move, which many stakeholders deemed illegal, Minister Holder indicated that, in fact, the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) has seen the sense of not following through with such plans.“I haven’t heard of any hiccups…I think this time GAWU has been sensible,” the Minister noted, seemingly referring to the “satisfactory” outcome of the meeting between the unions and Government earlier this month.Reports coming out of that very meeting, according to Minister of State Joseph Harmon, indicated that the unions were in fact in agreement with the option of privatising the industry.But GAWU President Komal Chand, on Sunday, when contacted by this newspaper on the union’s alleged decision to agree with privatizing the industry, offered a contrasting view to the privatisation claims.He staunchly denied that his union or the National Association of Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Employees (NAACIE) had made any such agreement during a meeting with President David Granger, Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, Minister of State Joseph Harmon, and other senior Government functionaries.“We disassociate ourselves…we haven’t made that agreement. Our general counsel has not made such a statement. GAWU and NAACIE have not jointly made such a statement, and the last letter we gave to Mr Harmon stated very clearly that we are opposed to Colvin Heath-London from the Special Purposes Unit. So that is not true,” Chand observed.The longtime GAWU leader in fact stated that a union stance on privatisation was a matter of policy: “We didn’t agree, but Mr. Harmon attributed to have said we agree; [but] we haven’t changed our position – a policy position of the union. We never, in any way, said we agree to the privatization of any estate in the sugar industry,” he noted.Asked whether the statements Minister Harmon made could be deemed dishonest, Chand responded: “All we have to say is that if the Minister so informed the public, then he is misinforming the public”.Unions monitoring severance payoutSpeaking on this week’s severance payments, Chand indicated that the union would be keeping a watchful eye on the payout in a move to safeguard workers from being shortchanged in the severance computation.“If we go with the Government’s word — that people will get their severance pay, and some will get half now and half later — we have to wait to see if there’s any miscalculation. Those of the view that their calculations are wrong, once they come to us, we will see that the formula is applied in keeping with their last year’s earnings, and they will know, because workers will have the pay slip to show,” he pointed out.“Our Field Secretaries are always on the ground, and they will be available for workers to approach them. That is how it was done for workers at Wales who got their severance pay…we had a few cases from Wales and we represented them and they were sorted out,” he added.Following a meeting held at the Ministry of Presidency between the unions and Government, Chand was quoted as having expressed satisfaction with the meeting’s outcome. In the subsequent days, reports which surfaced revealed promoted calls from sugar workers for him to resign, wherein it was observed that the long-time union and its President had not made adequate representation on their behalf.Since closure of the estates, Government has been heavily criticized for not having a clear direction to steer the terminated workers; and at one point, it seemed that the closure of the Rose Hall Estate would have been pushed back to this year. The Uitvlugt, Blairmont and Albion estates are the only three that remain operational.Last Thursday, Vice President Khemraj Ramjattan said the current Administration had expended some $32 billion since 2015 to bail out the sugar industry and meet its wage bill of close to $350 million per week. He said closure of estates was not new, as it has happened before.In a bid to justify Government’s delay in paying workers their severance at the time of dismissal, Ramjattan made reference to a case involving Trinidad and Tobago, where dismissed workers in that country’s sugar industry allegedly had to wait close to two years before they could receive their severance payments.He quickly changed gear, and this time ran to the rescue of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) as workers expressed dissatisfaction with the manner in which that union had handled the issue.“We begged GAWU and we invited NAAICE to come and talk to us…and they did,” Ramjattan said, before being interrupted by a worker who shouted, “But they sell we out!”In response, a visibly upset and embarrassed Ramjattan responded, “No! It cannot be said that way…GAWU is a responsible …they understand…putting (it) the way the polarization of hate and the purveyors of hate…and you got some of them here (who) will say that they sell us out…they did not…they understand the crisis that we have at hand, and they, too, realize that just as how you close Port Mourant years ago, Belladrum, Leonora and LBI…the things need certain closures…”When workers resisted his suggestion and explanations, the Vice President invoked religion, saying that somehow, the failure of sugar could have been part of a divine plan.“So it’s important to understand that hard decisions have to be made, and we are (the) ones that will (have) to make (them)… probably it was destined to have to fail. Probably God wanted it that way, and we have to make the decisions now… Probably that is why God also said let (them) find the oil under this Administration, and we have found it”, he remarked.The Vice President admitted that, somehow, the unions were part of, or suggested, the preferential payment of severance to workers, following a meeting organised by President David Granger.“We are even speaking with the GAWU and NAAICE on all these matters, and it appears that the Opposition does not want to hear us… But let me say this…we are here to say (to) everyone that would like to listen to us and give suggestions…they (GAWU) came up with a suggestion recently after the President asked them to meet us. And then we decided all under $500,000 are going to get their full lump sums; and that is what we are going to do…,” he said.