Ministry equipped to deal with discrimination - Westford by Andrew Richards
Stabroek News
December 11, 2001

Minister of Public Service, Dr Jennifer Westford, said her ministry was prepared to deal with any perceived racial discrimination within the public service and urged that such cases be forwarded for the ministry's attention.

Addressing participants at the Guyana Public Service Union's (GPSU) race relations seminar, which opened yesterday, Westford stated that there was a perception that racial preference existed within the public service.

She urged caution because perceptions could be dangerous stressed that government together with the people must work to ensure they did not exist. The minister noted that race played a major role in the country's history.

Race hate was developed in the past by politicians and served its purpose of divide and rule, she said. "I would like to think that any politician now who is worth his salt would not want something like that to continue," she stated. "We could have the most sophisticated workers and equipment but if we don't live and work together as Guyanese we are heading nowhere."

The minister singled out the lone Amerindian delegate, Rona Isaacs of Region Nine (Upper Takutu/Upper Essequibo) for special mention, stating that in the past the perception was that Guyana had only two races, but now the indigenous people were taking their rightful place in society.

She acknowledged that Amerindians were discriminated against in some aspects.

Westford urged public servants to inform her ministry whenever the perception of discrimination arose in any form in the public service. She called on the GPSU to be the watchdog on discrimination within the public service, but asked that due care must be practised because disciplinary action was sometimes mistaken for racial discrimination.

She asserted that her ministry was equipped to deal with such issues and would not allow them to pass by the wayside. "We're all Guyanese and we all deserve the same rights and to play a part to ensure Guyana has racial harmony," she stated.

The seminar is a five-day event being held at GPSU's sports complex and has as its theme 'Preserving Trade Union Unity in a Multi-Ethnic, Multi-Cultural Environment.'

Minister of Labour, Human Services and Social Security, Dr Dale Bisnauth, in his remarks, viewed the objective of the seminar to be the creation of harmonious relationships across ethnic lines within the GPSU and the fostering of national working class unity.

He lauded the initiative of the GPSU, acknowledging that pluralism existed in Guyana and noted its resilience to change.

"Every effort to effect change is to be applauded and at the same time I warn that this is a project that will demand our collective and sustained will over a protracted period of time," he said.

The minister stated that his ministry's policy on race relations derived from government's policy of unity in diversity. He asserted that government was committed to implementing equal opportunity policies to ensure no-one was discriminated against on the grounds of gender, race or disability.

He recalled that it was the present government, which promulgated the Prevention of Discrimination Act that made it unlawful in matters of employment to discriminate against persons on the grounds of race, religion, sexual preference or disability, among other areas.

He noted that even before the enactment of the new law, the ministry had ratified international labour conventions and recommendations, which bore directly or tangentially on race.

Guyana, he pointed out, was also party to the CARICOM Declaration of Labour and Industrial Relations Principles.

Dr Bisnauth remarked that Guyana's pluralism arose out of the labour needs of a plantation society and the exploitation based on those needs.

The minister pointed out that race as an element by itself was not necessarily conflictive. "It is racism that follows in race concerns related to insecurity and fear and pride which leads to overt or innate conflict within this country and within institutions in this society," he stated.

He added: "Race, as promoting identity and bonding is a positive thing which may be encouraged, as long as we hold to the distinction between race and racism."

He felt the problem would be how to promote positives in race and race relations and eschew the negatives in racism. He said the other problem would be the promotion of harmonious relationships among ethnic groups in the labour movement, and striving for working class unity at the same time.

General Secretary of Public Service International (PSI), Hans Engleberts, who is a guest of GPSU in the country together with other high-ranking PSI executives, noted that equal membership must be the obvious goal for a democratic trade union.

But he pointed out that when it came to equal rights and equal status for all members, too many trade unions had not come close to achieving this.

He told the participants that there were too few women, young people, members of oppressed ethnic groups, visible lesbian and gay activists, workers with disabilities, indigenous peoples, and immigrant workers in union membership or leadership positions.

Engleberts said an examination of what was happening around the world currently would reveal an alarming level of racism and xenophobia.

"And while this intolerance may be manifested in many different ways, the general trend is the same: acts of racism are on the rise everywhere and affect the most vulnerable people and groups," he stated.

He said the equality of opportunity and treatment at work was a basic right for all and must be assured for an ever-growing number of vulnerable workers.

Some workers were more in danger than others in a labour market where job security had become a luxury, he said.

He remarked that often, the workers were targets of discrimination due to their race, colour and national extraction.

He noted that systemic racism was often built into the structure of economies.

PSI was actively involved in the United Nations world conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance that was held in South Africa earlier this year.

Engleberts reported that a brochure was produced for the conference in which cases confirmed that the migrants, workers of colour, indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities were disproportionately represented in the ranks of the unemployed.

A plan of action by trade unions was established to address this and the PSI general secretary recommended the same plan to the GPSU.