Benin: SYNTRASA’s challenges towards a safer workplace in SUCOBE

On the first week of July, the IUF Global Sugar and Palm Oil coordinator had the opportunity to work with the sugar and alcohol workers union, the Syndicat des Travailleurs du Sucre et de l’Alcool (SYNTRASA) that represents workers at the Sucrerie de Complant du Benin (SUCOBE), and to visit the company’s cane farming and sugar manufacturing operations, with a focus on health and safety standards

SYNTRASA union leaders at SUCOBE – July 2018

During the visit, there was a maintenance period for the factory. However, health and safety standards equally applied as when the factory is in operation. Uses and equipment do not vary because of maintenance, and maybe it is even easier to spot shortcomings and organizational and structural issues.

An immediate negative impact on entering the factory is that the main recommendation in factory work is to use hard helmets and closed shoes – better if they are working boots. This, however, does hold true at the SUCOBE factory. Even, this is not a new comment. In 2012, ten years after Complant took over, the Department of Labour of Zou and Collines reported, among other things: “All workers performing their task in the factory are exposed to the risk of falling objects as they are not provided with protective helmets, which seems reserved for the officials.” The IUF coordinator can say that he saw just one employee wearing a helmet. In a moment of the visit, while touring the factory’s ground floor, the coordinator noticed that repair work was being done on the third floor, just above the visitors – including himself. None of the visitors wore a helmet, while the wrenches, the hammers, the screws and the bolts were happily dancing above our heads!

Lone helmet-wearer and floor as a working table.

The fortunate helmet-wearer, as seen on the picture, was using the floor as a working table, underlining a general lack of organisation, structures and facilities, which extends to the absence of social and personal areas (e.g. where employees can leave their personal belongings and change into working clothing); sanitary facilities; eating places (a makeshift canteen has been set up near the entrance to the factory); and a very poor housekeeping in all areas.

Inadequate facilities for employees.

The latter has also a direct and negative impact on the health of the workers, as workers in the garage area said: over there is so much discarded material and so many old tires, that they are a unique breeding ground for mosquitoes. Early evenings, the union representative in the section said, a horde of mosquitoes feast on the workers. He himself was recovering from malaria, and he himself had to pay for the medicine he needed.

Breeding ground for mosquitoes.

To match what seems to be a disorganised work environment, the provision of personal protective equipment is almost null. A clear example was given by the two workers sharpening the rollers that crush the cane; a task that produces myriad of sparks and fumes. However, they wore only clear goggles and a dust mask as protective equipment, which simply are not adequate for the job they perform. Going through the factory, even in maintenance period, gave the impression that an overwhelming proportion of employees wore sandals and open shoes: toes and feet are at high risk!

Wrong personal protective equipment.

It is difficult to assess, from one short visit, the health and safety conditions in the factory – equally difficult in farm operations –and considering that the company safety committee does not function, albeit mandated by legislation. On paper such committee ought to meet once a month, but it has been over a year since a committee meeting was held. According to SYNTRASA, the service period for the current committee had expired thanks, in part, to the stalling from management that has prevented the holding of meetings, and new committee members are yet to be appointed.

The efforts and concerns of SYNTRASA and workers to improve health and safety conditions will eventually build a safer and healthier workplace, but it will be a long, challenging and winding road.

The Chinese company Complant took over in 2003 the old Société Sucrière de Save (SSS), which had been established by Benin and Nigeria in the 1980s. After years of financial and production difficulties, Complant and the government agreed to a 20-year management contract for the sugar company, which became the Sucrerie de Complant du Benin (SUCOBE). SUCOBE operates on a three-month crushing season, with current annual production at around 17,000 tonnes of sugar from 165,000 tonnes of cane. Complant runs sugar operations in Sierra Leone, Togo and in Madagascar, and in 2011 it became the largest sugar company in Jamaica.

SYNTRASA and the IUF Sugar and Palm Oil Program

The union will negotiate terms and conditions of employment in 2019 and, before then, union elections will be held in October. The IUF Sugar/Palm Oil agreed to provide comparative contract information from the Jamaican operations of Complant, while a copy of the SUCOBE current collective bargaining agreement was also shared.

A political challenge for the union is that the contract with Complant expires in 2023 and the union will press to take part in the negotiations for either renewing the contract or engaging a new operator. This requires the union to equip itself to argue on working conditions but also on the impact sought of the company’s operations that should benefit the country and care for the environment. On the latter, there is an increasing preoccupation that factory effluents may in fact being discharged in the nearby lagoon, with the subsequent negative impact on the environment and the surrounding communities.

The IUF Global Sugar and Palm Oil Program is committed to work with SYNTRASA on the improvement of health and safety standards, that should be reflected on the 2019 collective bargaining agreement, and to provide information on political issues, e.g. use of national resources by private companies, which has become a major concern for several IUF sugar unions, as it is the case in Jamaica and Guyana in the English-speaking Caribbean, and Kenya in East Africa.

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