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Making the appeal in an address to honour five sugar workers killed over their rights 55 years ago, the Head of State said he was tremendously bothered that the labour movement is “still very divided”.
But the President noted recent “encouraging words” from Mr. Carvil Duncan, President of the umbrella body of the Guyana Trades Union Congress, and said he hopes the country can have a united labour movement
The Government’s drive towards good governance, transparency and greater financial accountability must also perforate the trade union environment and could set the basis for labour unity, he said.
Recalling the struggles for better working and living conditions by the five workers, now referred to as the ‘Enmore Martyrs’, the President said he does not think that they would have wanted a fragmented effort to improve the lot of their contemporary compatriots.
Today, “trade unions have to play a different role, they can’t just be confrontational on everything because in past, in many ways, that was the issue,” he commented at a ceremony to honour the Martyrs at Enmore, East Coast Demerara.
They must also link up with the national forces to stave off many of the challenges the country faces from abroad because of the new dispensation of globalisation, the President said.
“Many sectors in which workers are employed are coming under threat from globalisation and we have to work collectively to stave (this) off…and...readjust our activities in a collaborative way to address those challenges…,” he noted.
Addressing relatives of the Martyrs, unionists, diplomats and others gathered under a red and white striped tent opposite the Enmore Monument Square, the President conditions have changed tremendously since the era of June 16, 1948. Then, the Martyrs were gunned down by colonial police over demands for humane conditions of work and just remuneration.
Now the Government, which has passed laws to the effect, is “equally concerned about the environmental safety of workers (and) the prevention of industrial-related illnesses and injuries,” he said.
It has been placing emphasis on occupational health and safety and continues to give expression to the various International Labour Organisation agreements, which are being honoured not only in the letter, but in intent.
“Today, we have ratified more of these international labour agreements, not only than any other government in the past, but any other country in the Caribbean because we firmly believe in workers rights,” the President stated.
The Government is also continuing to develop housing, health care and education to enhance the living standards of Guyanese and President Jagdeo such a task is “never easy”, especially in poor countries where demands are greater than resources.
He said these are challenges workers and unions must understand in their appeal for more pay, reasoning that if the Government uses money allocated to other social sectors to increase wages and salaries by 500 per cent, citizens will not have schools and roads, for example.
President Jagdeo made the point in reference to an earlier address at the ceremony by Mr. Komal Chand, President of the Guyana Agricultural Workers Union (GAWU). The unionist called for an increase in the $20,000 income tax-free threshold to a level that even more workers can enjoy the minimum pay they earn monthly.
“…we are still not satisfied that the Government is being as generous as it should be with respect to assisting lower-paid workers to take home more pay to help with their working-class existence,” Chand said.
He urged Finance Minister, Mr. Saisnarine Kowlessar to fulfill a commitment announced in his 2003 national budget speech to strengthen income tax laws to enforce presumptive assessments on professionals and other categories of self-employed persons.
“…we call on the Minister to spread the tax net to ensure that all make their contributions so that the meagre 8 per cent of personal income taxes paid to the Treasury by the self-employed will be significantly increased, thus lessening the heavy tax burden on the ordinary workers,” Chand said.
But President Jagdeo, recalling that the threshold started some years ago at $6000, said take home pay is now greater and the Government has increased civil service wages and salaries by more than 500 per cent over the last ten years.
Then, 94 per cent of the country’s revenue went to repay external debts, and with wages and salaries, a total of 114 per cent of the earnings was eaten up.
“So we have had to deal with a historical situation. We’ve sought consistently to increase the benefits to workers, but at the same time we have several other problems to address…”, he noted.
The President added, “I know of the struggles that GAWU has had and I know that constantly, the workers are foremost in your mind and you will continue to argue a case for higher wages. But I ask for understanding, not only from GAWU, but the workers... because the (real) task is moving the country forward.”