President David Granger: Ms. Coretta Mc Donald; Mr. Horace James of NICIL; Mr. Kenneth Joseph of NAACIE, Mr. Komal Chand, GAWU; Professor Ivelaw Griffith, Vice Chancellor of the University of Guyana; Professor Harold Lutchman; Colonel Patrick West, Inspector General of the Guyana Defence Force; ladies and gentlemen:
I am honoured to be here this evening and I always remark that on the programme, I think on the penultimate page, are the words of L’Internationale. It was really quite quaint that this anthem is still being sung by the Guyana Trades Union Congress, one hundred and forty-five years after it was written.
Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, the British Guiana Trade Union Council-(B.G.T.U.C), was established seventy-five years ago. It was first registered on the 8th April, 1941 and everything seemed to go well for four months, but it was quickly dissolved in August, 1941.
It was reconstituted in June, 1943 and it reappeared on the 29th November, 1951 but was dissolved again on the 30th October, 1953. It emerged again on the 11th December, 1953; what a childhood for the Guyana Trades Union Congress today. Despite the ups and downs, the G.T.U.C could be proud of its historical record; it was in the vanguard of the struggle for a good life for workers.
Individual unions knew that they could not hope to succeed unless they were able to combine their strength to confront the employers, especially those which were multinational corporations during the colonial era.
The trade union movement, you will recall, became an instrument for mobilising the working class for social change. And it was not surprising, therefore, that the country’s two main anti-colonial political leaders, Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan, identified themselves with trade unions. But my brothers and sisters, although we recognise that the old model was very powerful, a very powerful force that participated in the struggle for independence, change has taken place.
In the words of the poet laureate, one of our most recent poet laureates of course, “The times, they are a-changin’”. Congress will remember that in its hey-day it possessed strong arms – the Trade Union Youth Movement, which was established fifty years ago; the Women’s Advisory Committee (W.A.C.) – Congress will recall that it used to publish newspapers and booklets. It held regular radio broadcasts; conducted vibrant education seminars, established this labour college where we are this evening. Its representatives held prominent positions in state agencies, boards, corporations and commissions.
The G.T.U.C’s model now needs to be re-examined and congress must look at its role – not how it performed in the past, but how it’s expected to perform in the future. Congress needs to take account of the changes in workers’ well-being; not only over the past seventy-five years but the changes which are still needed to improve the quality of the life of workers. It is true that the struggle of workers over the past hundred years, from the early days of Critchlow, have paid dividends.
The working class in Guyana, however, still faces many challenges. We need, my brothers and sisters, a new model of trade unionism to build on the successes of the last seventy-five years and to prepare workers for the future and that is why I was happy that the congress chose the theme about building a ‘green’ state. Even as we speak, technology is making jobs redundant, leading to the withdrawal and the downsizing of many industries; outsourcing is adding to job losses.
Globalisation has led to jobless growth in some instances. Nowadays, when China sneezes, the bauxite and timber industries catch a cold in Guyana. These developments have undermined workers’ standard of living and weakened the trade union movement. It is no secret that membership of trade unions has shrunk. It is estimated that in Guyana fewer than 20 per cent of the workforce are now unionised.
The decline in union membership has affected the capability and the credibility of trade unions and the congress itself. We need a new model; a model that is aimed at restoring the workers’ confidence and in enhancing the capacity of the trade unions. We need a new model that takes account of changes in the job market.
The International Labour Organisation and its World Employment Social Outlook for 2015 noted that “employment growth is weak, partly because of the decline in global demand and falling productivity. Globally, only fifty percent of workers are now in wage and salary employment”. The report also states that “Employment is shifting towards part time, single self-employment and contributing family work, which are anticipated to constitute thirty per cent of new jobs between 2015 and 2019”.
Many more people are working for themselves, for their families or at home and they don’t need unions anymore.
Brothers and sisters, the diversified, fragmented nature of employment markets has already started to present serious challenges for the unionisation of workers and for the protection of their rights.
The new model that I speak about requires a re-evaluation of trade union organisation as we have known it over the last seventy-five years. I speak not of the past, but of the future- the times are changing.
The G.T.U.C. as an association of trade unions has to redefine itself in light of these challenges – challenges which confront the entire labour movement in sugar, in bauxite, in the public service. Its attention has to be concentrated on addressing the concerns of the working class, including those who are under and unemployed. The trade union movement, in adapting to these new circumstances, must embrace a new model, a model that is based on education.
My brothers and sisters, we are living in a globalised era; knowledge-based industries are the main drivers of economic growth and competitiveness. If you didn’t notice, the hammer and sickle are no longer tools of the working class. Workers need to be educated. They need to be skilled if they are to function effectively and efficiently in a modern workplace. Workers need to be educated if their upward mobility is to be assured.
It is education and only education that will provide greater opportunities for the unemployed to secure employment. The provision of educational services for workers and for the unemployed therefore, must become the central focus of any organisation that is committed to protecting worker’s rights and livelihood.
The trade union movement must also understand the changes taking place in employment and it must promote self-employment – self-employment as a means of reducing unemployment. Mechanisms such as credit unions run by trade unions can help the unemployed by providing credit for them to launch their own microenterprises. Congress must examine ways to provide seed capital, to provide skills-training and mentoring in order to encourage job creation through entrepreneurship. So these are the two priorities – not striking and rally anymore, but education and employment.
My brothers and sisters, G.T.U.C can help to arrest the alienation of workers from their unions and only if this is done will the labour union, as we knew it, survive. Workers need to be engaged. Trade unions need to consider the changes that are taking place, not only in Guyana but around the world, but particularly in our country. Changes are taking place away from the comfort of the cozy coastland. Guyana is a blessed country; it is the greenheart of the world. I call it, without batting an eyelid, the second Garden of Eden.
Guyana is at the very centre of the Guiana Shield; one of the world’s last remaining blocks of virgin tropical rainforest. Guyana is a net carbon sink. Forests still envelope more than 85% of its landmass – the second highest percentage of forest cover in the world. These forests are valuable. They sequester carbon, they purify the air, they reduce the greenhouse effect, they mitigate the adverse impact of climate change. In some respects they are in better standing, than fallen. As the Amerindians say, “Trees hold up the sky. If you cut down the trees the sky will fall”.
Guyana is to become a ‘green’ state and in so doing, could become a worker’s paradise. Our concept of the ‘green’ state rests on four pillars. The first is on the provision of educational and environmental services and ecotourism. Guyana is a desired and desirable destination. People will come from all over Europe, all over the world to see our flora and fauna. I have seen in Dadanawa people from Ireland coming to see a particular bird, the Red Siskin, which is only found, I am told, in eastern Venezuela and southern Guyana. In the Kanuku Mountains alone we have more species of birds than the entire Western Europe. These are services we can provide. Workers could be educated to provide these services.
The second pillar of this ‘green’ economy is the protection of our biodiversity and our wildlife. I have said before the manatees and the arapaima and the dolphin (would-be exporters) are more valuable alive than in pepper pot and souse. The management of our coastal zone, of our rivers and our wetlands and our protected areas are the habitats of our unique biodiversity. We have got more Scarlet Ibises than Trinidad and Tobago along our coastland. And if you are to see our unique national bird you have to go up into the wetlands. All of these landscapes are part of our patrimony.
The third pillar is the generation of sustainable energy. There are over a hundred sites in Guyana which could generate hydroelectric power. We have a four hundred and fifty-kilometre long coastland, which could generate wind-energy. The amount of sunlight that is generated in our savannahs, our Intermediate Savannahs, in the Rupununi Savannahs, could power those regions through solar power and this is a direction towards which our economy must turn and where we’ll provide jobs for our young people.
So these are some of the pillars on which the ‘green’ economy stands and these pillars are capable of generating a new type of worker, a worker in the ‘green’ economy. So brothers and sisters, do not despair. The old trade unionism may be passing, but we can open a new window to a new model of trade unionism that is appropriate to the ‘green’ state. If we do not do that, we will end up like the dinosaurs, embracing a dying, combative trade union culture rather than embracing a dynamic new green culture. The old model has outlived its usefulness and, as Matthew said, “Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” The Gospel of St. Matthew
My brothers and sisters, it is time for new wine and new wineskins. It is time for new thinking in today’s trade union movement. I trust therefore that the delegates to this Fourth Triennial Congress will deliberate seriously on the theme and will examine the need to embrace the ‘green’ state.
I wish congress every success and I close by reassuring the G.T.U.C that my government has no interest in retarding the development of the working class or of the trade union movement. Unions which represent the workers must feel free to seek new pathways to advance their workers’ interests.
I hope this is a successful congress and I have great pleasure in declaring it open.
I thank you.