It is only after the magnitude of the potential disaster became apparent to the public that the Government began to scramble for a plan to protect workers of Wales Estate and farmers who supply cane. The closure of Wales Sugar Estate would impoverish the 1,700 workers and their families, cane farmers and their families and all others who are sustained by the existence of Wales Estate. The Government’s plan, announced in bits and pieces and later advertised in the media, is likely to fizzle as rapidly as it was hastily concocted. Offering some workers jobs at Uitvlugt and the vague notion of a waterway to transport farmers’ canes are not enough.
Unless serious and constructive ideas are put together and adopted, unemployment and poverty would devastate the Wales and Canal No. 2 communities and adversely affect the economy of Region 3. This impending disaster and its horrific social consequences could and should be averted.
The Government has said that the Estate will lose in the vicinity of $1.6 to $1.9 billion dollars this year while Guysuco as a whole will require a subsidy of $12 billion dollars. Guysuco is in overall debt of $78 billion. In these circumstances the President of GAWU, Komal Chand, and the Leader of the Opposition, Bharrat Jagdeo, see sinister plots and argue that the Wales Estate should remain open for the purpose of providing employment to workers who are from the Wales and Canal No. 2 communities and cane farmers from both Canal Nos. 1 and 2. Mr. Komal Chand accused the Government of having a secret deal to sell Wales Estate. Mr. Jagdeo claimed that political discrimination against PPP supporters was the real motive for the closure.
Finally revealing his own plan on Tuesday and Wednesday, Mr. Jagdeo urged, and offered his support for, negotiation for a US$50 million line of credit from the Government of India to refurbish sugar factories. But the Wales factory, one hundred years old, appears to be beyond refurbishment. Mr. Jagdeo also suggested a debt for equity swap with the Government. It is not quite clear how this would work. The debt proposed to be swapped with the Government is Government debt. But Government already owns all of Guysuco’s equity. Apart from these proposals making little sense for Wales, or at all, no one should give credibility to the plans of those who ruined the sugar industry, threatened to derecognize GAWU when workers expressed dissatisfaction, and are now crying crocodile tears for sugar workers.
Ten to fifteen years ago when sugar was in far better shape and the high prices and quotas being offered by Europe were known to be on the way out, there was talk about ‘rationalization’ of the sugar industry to reduce cost of production to the world market price and to make it profitable. The Skeldon Sugar Factory, the Enmore Packaging Plant and the closures of L.B.I and Diamond were decisions emerging from that period.
Part of the proposed rationalization process was the closure of the unproductive Demerara estates with Wales being among the first in line. The inability of then President Jagdeo to ‘sell’ this aspect of the rationalization plan to GAWU and sugar workers, resulted in the closure of only the smaller L.B.I. and Diamond Estates. The workers, like those of Wales, were offered no help or serious alternatives, apart from their severance pay. Now, of course, it is hoped by the Opposition that the Jagdeo Government’s abandonment of the L.B.I. and Diamond workers will be forgotten and as much political mileage as possible will be made about Wales.
The Government’s prime consideration in closing Wales Estate, if they are determined to do so, should be, or should have been, the welfare of the workers, cane farmers and their families and the wider impact as described above. It ought first to have devised a serious, credible and workable set of proposals, not the hastily cobbled together ‘plans’ that have been announced, to sustain the employment of workers and assist farmers to convert to other crops, if necessary, with the long term future of the communities in mind. Then it ought to have consulted with the workers and their representatives. If the plan had merit there was no reason why they would not have agreed. Only then should an announcement have been made. If the Government now needs time to devise such a plan, it should withdraw the proposed closure until it does.
Serious study would have to be undertaken as to the potential of Wales Estate and there is time to do so. The Estate can be sold for conversion into production of another crop. Alternatively the land could be divided among workers, either individually or through co-operatives for farming purposes. Experts may be able to find other investment possibilities. These are possible. In an advertisement in Stabroek News of January 22 the Government said: “Harvested land would be retired and held for diversification purposes.” This land should be given, rented or sold on generous and affordable terms to workers. Unless the Government evolves a rational plan, the thousands of people who will be affected will not forget it, as they watch their children growing without a future and unemployment, poverty, crime and suicides escalate.