Whither Guyana

Stabroek News
August 22, 1999

Business Page returns and welcomes a youthful new President who one can only hope will be the breath of fresh air that will catapult the country into the new millennium with the optimism that has been missing in Guyana these past few years. Business Page was discontinued on October 20, 1996 because of the then prevailing conditions which were clearly not "business as usual". Whilst the conditions are still very bad we believe that the resignation of Mrs Jagan and the accession of Mr Jagdeo to the Presidency have dramatically altered the political landscape in a manner that demands a fundamental paradigm shift on the part of the People's National Congress. Its failure to respond in a creative and democratic manner can determine its future electability.

The situation both on the economic and political fronts since 1997 has not engendered any sense of confidence and faith in the business and investing community and the effects are all too visible.The initial period of post-election unrest had its negative impact but this apparently was not enough. For good measure we had to follow up with further instability and acrimony in the form of a lengthy strike by Public Service employees.

Potent weapon
In principle there is nothing wrong with unions resorting to strike action when all else fails. However, both labour and management must ensure that all other possibilities have been exhausted before this potent weapon is allowed to be unleashed. Unfortunately this was not the case with the strike. In our view both sides must accept some blame. At one point it appeared that politics and posturing were paramount and the national interest appeared to have been relegated if not sacrificed until it was almost too late.

The end result was a display of machismo which backed the protagonists into a corner from which neither side could easily extricate itself. Everyone including the workers came out on the losing end. While not desirous of dwelling on history, the causes of this situation should be carefully evaluated so that this fiasco does not recur. Perhaps such analysis should have been part of the mandate of both the arbitration and investigative panels that have been convened since the strike "resolution."

Inadequate mechanisms
There must be a focus on the procedures pertaining to contract negotiation and dispute resolution between the unions representing the Public Service workers and Government. It is evident that the mechanisms in place to deal with the contract situation of the Public Service employees were either inadequate or were not utilized. It is hoped that the arbitration committee will produce a realistic, binding proposal that will establish deadlines and parameters for negotiations, thus ensuring that concerns are addresed in a timely manner. A more permanent solution rather than the present band-aid approach is necessary. The solution should address both pay and productivity, and the rights and responsibilities of all parties should be clear and unambiguous.

Low pay, low productivity
There is no question that by and large wages and salaries in Guyana are low relative to the cost of living and that Public Service workers are probably lowest on the totem pole in terms of a living wage. It is also no secret that the reality or perception, and it matters not which, is that productivity in the public sector is lower than desired levels. One need not go into all the horror stories of trying to get things done at a government office but the stigma exists and will not be removed easily.

Makeover needed
It is incumbent on the unions to attempt to improve this image and this can only be done through their acceptance that a problem exists and their ability to convince workers that this negative image must be addressed. Public relations, communication, commitment, cooperation and training are some of the tools necessary for the required makeover of our public service worker and the responsibilities of the unions cannot be overstated. Government on the other hand must respect the right of the unions to represent and speak for their members and must adopt a less confrontational stance in dealing with issues.

This is not to imply that the Government must roll over and accede to every demand made but its representatives should remember that they speak not on behalf of the little grocery store down the road, but rather on behalf of the nation. They must therefore be prepared to handle negotiations firmly but with decorum and fairness despite any effort at aggression or provocation by the other side. Sad to say both sides demonstrated what could only be termed moments of apparent insanity during the crisis, and private sector intercession was necessary before compromises could be reached. It is frightening to contemplate the consequences had the two sides been left to resolve the issue on their own!

Was this rescue effort too late? Only time will tell. A lot of bad blood still exists and the workers are not happy with the "settlement" especially after the tough stand the unions had adopted as the strike wore on. However while efforts must be made at some form of repair to the damage already done at the unions/Government level, much more in terms of damage control needs to be done at the national level. Many of our entrepreneurs and businesspersons decided that the climate here was too uncertain for their long-term interest. Some of them shifted their economic interest and their focus elsewhere robbing the country once again of badly needed resources. It is a testimony to the faith and determination of CDC/ESBI that they did not withdraw from the GEC privitisation as one previous prospective investor.

Investment in all forms has contracted and new initiatives are necessary to show the investing community that the country is now ready to do business and that we are committed to a stable, facilitating environment. Guyana is now seen as the place not to be despite all its much vaunted potential. How do we convince the total and international investment community that we are prepared to deal with the elections less than twenty months away without demonstrations and violence? Visible efforts are needed fast and must be seen to be producing tangible results.

These efforts must take the form of dialogue and consultation not affront and confrontation. Unfortunately the signs are not very encouraging at this time since the rumblings from the major opposition party, especially on the accession of Mr Jagdeo to the presidency, have given little cause for optimism. Guyana is not in good shape by any measure and it is time for the national good to take precedence over petty politics and partisan agendas. Guyanese are tired of this approach and it is time that we let our politicians know that we have had enough and that it is time for us to move on. The present political culture is no longer acceptable.

President Jagdeo and Mr Hoyte must demonstrate that pursuit of the best interest of the Guyanese people is a paramount, larger goal than any real or imagined grievances that may exist between their parties. This will require great effort on both sides but it must be made to happen if real social or economic progress is to be achieved. It is time for statesmanship to replace brinkmanship since Guyana cannot be successful with the intransigence, mistrust and intolerance that have weighed heavily on the relationship between the two major political parties since the 1992 elections.

A © page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples