Belize: Resuming Solidarity Work when a TNC enters the field

A tripartite effort resumed the work of the IUF Global Sugar Program with the Belize Workers Union (BWU), which had the support of the British union, GMB. The BWU program included a workshop (2-4 October) as well as field work with factory and field visits, and ad-hoc meetings with the BWU leadership.

A key aspect of this program is that BWU organises workers in one operation controlled by the ASR Group, the world’s largest sugar refiner. The ASR Group is listed with an annual processing capacity of over 6 million tonnes per year; and either owns or controls sugar refineries and factories in the United States, Canada, the UK, Portugal, Italy, Mexico and Belize.[1]

The BWU workshop, attended by 22 participants, was divided in three sections. On the first day, the participants discussed processes that influence the local sugar industry, with presentations on the Accompanying Measures for the Sugar Protocol Countries (AMS) established by the European Union (EU) by a representative of the Ministry of Economic Development; the impact of the Fair Trade sugar arrangements by the CEO of the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA); on Labor Legislation by the Labor Departments; relevant issues by the Social Security Board, and a review of the Belizean labour movement by the president of the National Trade Union Congress (TUC).

The presentations provided a different angle to evaluate the local sugar industry, particularly in reference to EU AMSPC and fair Trade. For instance, the EU-AMS has channeled some Euro 80 million since 2006 to support Belize’s adaptation to new sugar market conditions, to improve competitiveness and to support the sugar-dependent communities. On the other hand, Fair Trade arrangements have transferred some USD 25 million in the so-called fair trade premiums in the 2008-2013 period.

Participants at the IUF Sugar/BWU Workshop. 2-4 October 2014

Participants at the IUF Sugar/BWU Workshop. 2-4 October 2014

The Belize Sugar Industries Ltd. (BSIL), currently the country’s only operating mill, ended the 2014 harvest with high levels of processing that hovered about 7,500 tonnes of daily capacity, and a production of around 120,000 tonnes of sugar. BSIL is improving production.

On the other hand, there is an improvement of farming practices through Fair Trade arrangements. The fair trade premium price of USD 60/tonne, over and above the price of sugar, is to be used to improve the conditions of the communities where the sugar is produced. Of course, funds are also allocated to farming, like cane quality improvement programs, use of chemical products, and improvement of cane delivery schedules, among others.

The impact of these two main sources of external funds directly related to the Belizean sugar sector appears not to be felt in the same measure by the workers and the union. In 2013, the contract farm workers at BSIL voted to be represented by the BWU given their demands for improved terms and conditions of service. The BWU is currently negotiating a CBA on their behalf.

Therefore, the second section of the workshop was to outline a program to strengthen the BWU and to improve services to the membership. This was done through Group Work on three basic union matters: the role of organisers; Collective Bargaining, and perspectives on Health and Safety. Through the Group Work, participants made recommendations in the following areas:

  • Educate and sensitise the union membership on labour legislation (e.g.Labour Act); study the BWU constitution and the collective bargaining agreements, create more opportunities for members to participate in the decision-making processes and to foster the collaboration with each other as to strengthen the union.
  • At the level of union Committees (Corozal and Orange Walk) and the Executive, the workshop recommended training on negotiation skills, development of abilities to engage and communicate with union members on relevant issues, particularly Health and Safety. It was also acknowledged the need to seek assistance during negotiations, which might be provided by retired unionists.

In the third section, the workshop discussed a joint work program with IUF Sugar, only after having identified the BWU program. Through their work with the IUF Global Sugar Program, they can benefit and contribute to a network fighting for an upward harmonisation of terms and conditions of service across the ASR Group. Several practical tasks are derived from this agreement: e.g. CBA conditions in BSIL for the factory and farm workers, company policies, and the union participation in processes that have an impact on the sector.

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[1] The ASR Group, the new corporate name for American Sugar Refining Inc., acquired a 78 percent stake in BSIL in 2012, through investments that mainly went to pay debts.

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1 comment

    • Ramiro Ramon Gongora on October 12, 2014 at 10:23 pm

    My Dear Bros and Sis from the GMB and the IUF,

    The Belize Workers’ Union(BWU) would like to give thank and appreciation to the GMB and the IUF for supporting the workshop of October 2 to 4, 2014. On March 11,2008 the BWU and the IUF held a seminar in which all the stake holder of the sugar industry participated including then Belize Sugar Industries Limited. These type of workshop are important to the BWU and its members so they can be motivate to make recommendations that will benefit its members.

    We can say that now as the Transnational Company, American Sugar Refining Group has acquired 78% of BSIL it will be challenging times for the BWU. But never the less the members have faced redundancies, termination and union busting since the BWU formed back on March 16,1981. That only shows the resilience of the BWU members and families

    In concluding the BWU will make all effort in continuing the work to serve its members and venture in the formation of solidarity network with all other affiliated unions. Once again thanks to the GMB and the IUF.

    In solidarity,

    Ramiro R. Gongora

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