Minibus operators strike
Hundreds of commuters stranded
Berbice protest turns nasty By Nigel Williams and Daniel DaCosta
Stabroek News
January 29, 2002

Strike action by minibus operators in the city, on the East Coast and in Berbice saw hundreds stranded on the roadways, including school children and workers. Many were forced to return home after a prolonged and futile wait for transportation yesterday.

In Berbice the protest, which commenced as a peaceful exercise, quickly spiralled out of control.

The strike action stemmed from an announcement by Minister of Home Affairs, Ronald Gajraj, that legislation will be tabled in parliament shortly to make the use of seat belts mandatory and enforce the law which prohibits the use of boom boxes, which was enacted about two years ago.

Approximately 50 Route 50 buses staged peaceful demonstrations yesterday at the Rosignol Stelling and Foulis on the West Coast of Berbice. A small number protested along the East Coast Berbice highway commonly called the Number 19 road. After spending a little while there they made their way to Corriverton where they staged another protest.

A delegation from the East Berbice Minibus Association met Officer in charge of traffic, 'B' Division, Fred Semple, on Sunday and matters, including the seizure of tape decks and speakers were to be raised. By mid afternoon yesterday scores of drivers, conductors and residents began stopping buses and hire cars transporting passengers to and from Rosignol and Georgetown at Foulis.

At one point a noxious substance was sprayed in the crowd creating panic and confusion. Passengers were hijacked from vehicles, which were forced to join the protest and those who resisted had their vehicles punctured by the protesters who became unruly as police ranks stood by unmoved.

The usually busy East Coast Highway was jammed with school children, workers and other people. In every village from Mahaica on the upper East Coast to Plaisance on the lower there were long lines of parked minibuses and struggling passengers on the road corners. With heavy rainfall yesterday and little or no place to shelter many returned to their homes frustrated by the long and futile wait.

When Stabroek News visited the East Coast yesterday many of the minibuses were parked at the corner of the Railway Embankment at Beterverwagting. Operators were seen drinking beers and other beverages and some prevented those who weren't on the strike from working.

The drivers and conductors complained that passengers were usually abusive to them. "We are not dogs, we are delivering a service to the nation, but many think that because we are conductors and drivers we are low-class citizens, this nonsense must stop," one man said.

He said that many days they struggled to secure the day's target earnings. He alleged harassment by traffic officers, saying that it made their work laborious and stressful. He said that many of the minibus operators were not happy with the proposed legislation announced by Gajraj, but were willing to work with a more reasonable and practical law.

Another operator, Donald Webb, indicated that they weren't in opposition with the law prohibiting the use of boom boxes, but they could not put up with a law prohibiting them from playing music. "They can take the box, but how can we work all day without music? Music helps us to maintain our cool when business isn't bright. It provides entertainment for passengers while travelling and to take that away is like taking away our daily bread," Webb said.

He said at first the police were allowing them to operate with a six-inch box, but now, if they are caught playing any music at all, they are fined $30,000 or an alternative of three months imprisonment. He also noted that the buses being imported did not have seatbelts, with the exception of the front seats. He pointed out that if they were to comply with the seatbelt law it meant they would have to spend more money. "What I think is that, these people who are making these rules should think before they act," the man maintained.

Some of the men contended that the government was trying to curb the many road accidents, which have been plaguing the society for a number of years. The men said that speeding vehicles should definitely be penalised but, insisted that playing music was not a significant factor in the many road deaths.

"We can understand if they maintain a law to reduce speeding, but is not everybody usually drive speed [fast] and one man or two men should not cause hundreds to suffer," one driver said. The strike action started from as early as 6:00 am yesterday. Many of the popular buses pulled up to the corners of many of the villages and when passengers rushed to their doors the sad news was announced.

The buses that were seen working were the so-called 'corkballs' (older buses with mature drivers and no music). Many of them were filled to capacity, transporting passengers while the traffic officers being cognisant of the problem did nothing to stop the overloading. One commuter said that she went out on the road as early as 6:00 am to catch a bus. When this newspaper caught up with her yesterday at about 10:00 am she was still standing on the road with a strained and tired countenance.

The woman told Stabroek News that she was in support of the government since often, minibus operators were in the habit of overloading the buses, playing music loud and continuously and sometimes withholding passengers' change.

"These men aren't concerned about anybody, so I am happy somebody is finally concerned about us [passengers] let them take out those boxes and stop overloading the buses" the woman said.

She said that enactment of the law to make the use of seatbelts mandatory was an excellent idea since it would help to preserve many of the lives that were being lost. But she pointed out that many of the operators would find it difficult to access seatbelts because the buses were not imported with them. She said that they would be costly and the government should give them ample time to acquire same.

The operators, after protesting for some time on the East Coast drove in a motorcade-like fashion to Georgetown where they culminated on the East Coast bus park and then took their protest to Leader of the Justice For All party, CN Sharma. Sharma told the men that they had a legitimate right protest against something that was affecting them and pledged his support to the men saying he would help them to organise a protest in the streets of Georgetown.

He pointed out that he had been receiving several complaints of police officers allegedly taking bribes and harassing minibus operators. Sharma noted that there was a definite need to stamp out the many incidences of road deaths, but "One rotten orange must not spoil the whole barrel."

There was also strike action by some of the minibus operators plying Route 40 Kitty Campbellville.

Hundreds of commuters were yesterday left stranded as operators on both sides of the Berbice River parked their vehicles along the east and west Berbice highways. The operators said that they were protesting what they described as unreasonable and stiff penalties imposed last week by a West Berbice Magistrate for charges laid by the police against drivers whose buses were equipped with tape decks and powerful speakers (boom boxes).

The action by the more than 60 operators left hundreds of commuters stranded in New Amsterdam, Corentyne and West Berbice. The buses usually operated within Route 63 Crabwood Creek/New Amsterdam and Route 50 Rosignol/Georgetown. The New Amsterdam and Rosignol stellings were yesterday devoid of the large number of buses that vigorously compete daily for the hundreds of commuters that travel from East and West Berbice to destinations along the Upper East and the Georgetown.

The handful of hire cars which ply the New Amsterdam/Georgetown route were not adequate to fill the void left by the 15-seater buses. A large number of commuters abandoned plans to travel yesterday including students who attend President's College and schools in the city.

The protesting operators called for some discretion to be exercised by the police and magistrates and for a reduction in the fines. They stated that they would continue to strike for the remaining of the week and if nothing was achieved at the end they would join Sharma in a grand protest and march in Georgetown.