The challenges of change and continuity

The Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU) hosted its 95th anniversary celebration, one year ago, right here in this Benab. I noted, on that occasion, that dinosaurs became extinct because they could not adapt to change. I said that if organisms cannot change they cannot survive. Change is imperative and indispensable for any organism to improve.

The Guyana Public Service Union has survived for 96 years because it has changed and adapted. A study of trade unionism in Guyana over the past century, will indicate how many have disappeared because they failed to change with the times.

Change, also, is taking place at a rapid pace and is transforming the nature of the workplace. Workers who are not prepared for the continuous changes in the field and office could find their careers retarded and their service redundant.

Workers will be unable to adapt to this new workplace environment unless they receive constant training. Education is essential to preparing employees to enter the labour market and once in the labour market, to adapt continuously to the changing nature of work. It means that education must be continuous.

Technological change – especially through automation and information communication technology – brings both opportunity and uncertainty. Technological change has spawned new jobs but it has caused, also, many redundancies and labour retrenchment. The transformation of labour is the inevitable consequence of these changing times that labour has to change to keep abreast with the times and the market place.

The Public Service

The modern Public Service demands competent, proficient and versatile workers, who can adapt constantly to changing technologies. The Public Service has created jobs for highly-skilled persons but it has also displaced low-skilled employees. The conclusion is obvious, to survive, employees have to become more highly-skilled even after they have commenced their service.

The Public Service provides administrative services to citizens, communities, companies and to the entire country. The Public Service offers agricultural services, birth, business and death registration, immigration services, port health services, postal services, legal and local government services, public education, public health, public infrastructure, public telecommunication, public security and social security, and the list goes on.

The Public Service is indispensable to any modern state. It is a necessity if citizens’ lives are to be improved and an enabling environment for businesses is to be created. A corps of highly trained and competent public servants is essential to ensuring the delivery of quality and timely public services.

Young school-leavers in the middle of the last century could aspire to joining the civil service at the entry-level. He or she could climb the rungs of the civil service hierarchy, benefitting, along the way, from the retirement or death of those at the top.

The Public Service has changed since those slow, sluggish days. It has become a more complex network of agencies, departments and Ministries offering a variety of services to wider urban, rural, hinterland and even international communities in terms of the Foreign Service. It has also become more competitive and the people who acquire new skills can perform better than their colleagues, will move further, faster.

We inherited a situation, in 2015, in which cadets could enter the Public Service without an adequate understanding of the external and internal environments in which they were required to function and sometimes without a full appreciation of the complexity of this country to which we belong – its history, geography, its demography, laws, governmental structure and the systems and regulations of public administration.

Regrettably many school-leavers are unprepared for complexity of work within the Guyana Public Service. They require additional training to be able to deliver services across the ten administrative regions which straddle, the coastlands, the grasslands and savannahs, the highlands, the wetlands and forested and riverine areas. That was the justification for the establishment of the Bertram Collins College of the Public Service, to ensure that those entering the public service were equipped with a deeper understanding of the nature of the public administration in this complex country. The ‘College’ is overcoming its early teething problems and is working to enhance the competencies of cadets so that when they join their respective ministries and departments, they could deliver efficient public services.

The Public Service is being transformed horizontally and vertically. The Public Service must be extended and expanded, increasingly to the hinterland regions and Public Servants must be prepared to leave the coastland and serve in the hinterland. Our Government is erasing the differences between the huge hinterland west of the Essequibo and that part of Guyana, the smaller part of Guyana, east of the Essequibo. The Essequibo River, 1,000 kilometres long unfortunately, traditionally, has divided our country developmentally, in two and to the west of the Essequibo, the infrastructure, the services are not on par with some of the services and infrastructure, east of the Essequibo. We don’t want to erase the River, but we want to erase the inequality and the division.

So by 2015, there were gross inequalities between hinterland and coastland and sometimes between rural and urban areas. Incredibly, a person wanting to register a business in Lethem in the Rupununi had to travel the more than 450 kilometres to Anna Regina in the Pomeroon-Supenaam Region to do so, for example.

Inequality must be eliminated structurally as well. We shall build a nation of strong regions. Each region will have its own capital town which will drive its development. Each capital town will become a hub for the provision of services to the public.

The Public Service, in this way, will be extended and expanded outwards. We’ve already created four new capital towns – at Bartica, in Cuyuni-Mazaruni; Mahdia in Potaro-Siparuni; Lethem, in the Rupununi; and Mabaruma, in the Barima-Waini Region – all of these towns have been established to drive the development of their respective regions, including by improving the access to public services. Public Servants must be prepared to leave Georgetown and to go into Bartica and Mabaruma and Mahdia and Lethem, just as they are moved from Kingston to Cummingsburg or to Queenstown. They are all part of Guyana and Public Servants must be prepared to serve everywhere.

Inequality will be eliminated structurally. We shall build a region of strong regions; there is no other way. Our objective is to reduce inequalities, including access to public services. The creation of the capital towns in the course of time, will enable the establishment of more secondary schools, better equipped, better staffed hospitals, more law courts, passport offices, police stations. Each region is going to have a divisional headquarters.

Honourable Prime Minister is here; we are also moving to establish regional broadcasting stations in what is called the Regional Public Broadcasting Service. Every regional capital will have a broadcasting service, first for radio and eventually for television. Sometimes you go into a community, as I’ll be going in a few minutes, the first thing that strikes you is the silence. Some of these regions, some of these communities do not have newspapers, do not have telephones, do not have television and our Government is extending the Regional Public Broadcasting Service to ensure that they can keep in contact and they know what is going on in the rest of the country.

All of these services will be provided because of our policy of developing regional capital towns and Public Servants must be prepared to work in those regions, providing service to the public, that’s what Public Service means, serving the public.

The Public Service is being improved vertically because Guyana’s economy is undergoing transformational change and the transformation will quicken in the years after 2020. The Public Service is being reconfigured to better regulate our economic sectors – including our natural resources and telecommunications sector – and to protect the environment. The Public Service, in the discharge of its regulatory role, will require more specialized and highly-skilled public servants.

Cadets entering the public service therefore must possess the requisite agility and versatility to work not only in every part of the country but also in a competitive and digitized environment against younger and better educated Cadets, who will continue to enter the service. Workers require better training to be able to adapt to this environment. Unions, particularly the Public Service Union, must play a part in helping its members to adapt to these changes and to ensure that the workforce is better educated in order to play a meaningful role in the delivery of these services.

The International Labour Organization established a Global Commission on the Future of Work, in 2017. The Commission published its report, entitled Work for a Brighter Future, earlier this year.

The ‘Report’ proposed, inter alia, the establishment of a lifelong learning ecosystem, which would enable “people to acquire skills and to reskill and upskill.” It warned that the skills of today will not match the jobs of tomorrow and that newly acquired skills may quickly become obsolete.

One of the principal challenges, facing the modern workforce relates to the need to be equipped with the skills necessary for a rapidly changing workplace. Education is the means to overcoming that challenge.

The ‘Report’ noted that establishing a lifelong learning ecosystem is a joint responsibility which requires the active engagement and support of not only of governments but employers, educational institutions and unions. It states that:

…Employers and workers’ organizations also have a leading role to play in this ecosystem, including through anticipation of future skills required as participation in their delivery.

We cannot leave them out and this is the reason why earlier this year, we re-established the National Youth Corps so that young people, who for one reason or the other, had to quit the formal education system will get an opportunity to re-join through the Youth Corps.

The ‘Report’ also urged that: 

Special attention needs to be given to promoting access and participation in lifelong learning for young people who are not in employment, education or training [NEET] to ensure their social inclusion.

This recommendation is of particular importance to Guyana. It is a fact that too many young people, between the ages of 15-24, are not in education, employment or training.

Decade of Development: 2020-2029

Your Government will launch a Decade of Development from 2020-2029. The Decade will place emphasis on education. It will ensure that:

.Every citizen enjoys his or her entitlement to education. This entitlement is not the invention of a political party. It is embedded in the Constitution of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana. Free education is mandated by our Constitution [Article 27] which states: “Every citizen has the right to free education from nursery to university.”

∙ Every village must have a school. We sometimes ignore the importance of childhood education. Education starts in the home and the village. The ‘Decade’ will ensure that there is at least one primary school in every village. Children should not need to travel long distances to reach school. A school in every village would foster a spirit of shared responsibility, ensure easier access to education and allow villagers to superintend school attendance.

∙ Every school must have a place for every child. Every Guyanese child must have easy access to school by road or river. Transportation costs for sending children to school takes great slice out of household budgets. Your Government will expand the provision of buses, boats and bicycles through the Public Education Transportation Service (PETS) in order to reduce the financial burdens on parents. It will expand the school-feeding programme and the book delivery programme to encourage school attendance and improve performance.

∙ Every school must place greater emphasis on the teaching of science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM). The Public Education system will continue to equip students for the knowledge-based societies of the future. We will emphasize STEM without deemphasizing the humanities. The Union must be part of these changes.

∙ A lifelong system of education – from the cradle to the grave. Attention will be given to cooperation and collaboration with trade unions to strengthen workers’ education so that they can make the most of the opportunities which are available in the economy.

I have created a funding window as I have called it, called the National Endowment for Science and Technology (NEST) and that is for education. You cannot produce a generation of scientists without ensuring that important schools like Lower Six Multilateral schools, have fully equipped laboratories and the University of Guyana has a fully equipped laboratory.

I iterate the call for our trade unions, particularly those which represent public servants, to play a more active role in workers’ training. I urge them to become more active in workers’ education as mandated by the ‘Report’ of the Global Commission on the Future of Work, established by the International Labour Organization.

The Guyana Public Service Union, established 96 years ago, has the experience and the expertise to inaugurate a new compact, agreement, concord between the government, the trade unions and the private sector. The Union – one of Guyana oldest trade unions – has to lead by example.

Public servants provide public goods which benefit all sectors of the economy and all regions of the country. An efficient and capable Public Service is essential to ensuring a better quality of life for our citizens.

Public servants, however, must upgrade their training continuously if they are to remain relevant to the new economy which is emerging. Trade unions have a responsibility to invest in the well-being of their workers’, including through collaboration with private and public agencies to improve workers’ education.

I urge this Conference to examine ways and means in which the Union could work with government to usher in a new era in our relations – one in which there is a compact of cooperation and collaboration. I wish the Union continued success as it adapts to a rapidly changing labour landscape.

I wish its continued success as it adapts to a rapidly changing labour landscape.

I extend wishes for its 23rd Biennial Conference.

I thank you and may God bless you all.

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