Commentary: Trinidad: Caroni workers still waiting for their complete severance package… ten years later

About a decade ago, Caroni (1975) Ltd. closed its sugar production. It was the only sugar processor in the island of Trinidad and the only refiner in the Caricom area. Some 10,000 employees were offered in 2003 a Voluntary Separation of Employment Package (VSEP) with a twist,[1] package that included lots of land for housing and agricultural/food production. A new government was installed three years ago but, all the same, nothing significant has been done regarding the severance package. So, ten years later, the Caroni ex-sugar workers are still waiting for the government to fulfil the VSEP promise.

On 25 June, the All Trinidad General Workers’ Trade Union (ATGWTU), which used to represent the sugar workers at Caroni, asked for the current board of the company to be disbanded, as they have “have miserable and/or deliberately failed the ex-Caroni workers and is in breach of their duty to the ex-workers.”[2] The union lost some 9,000 members, over 90 percent of their membership, with the closure of the sugar industry, while there are many who think that the real objective of “restructuring” Caroni was to change the political landscape of the island, as sugar workers have been a major force in Trinidad’s society.

What is the present situation of the ex-workers of Caroni? It is difficult for this writer to muster a decent answer. Maybe, there’s no answer yet.

The core of the current conundrum appears to access to the lots for housing and agriculture. An ex-worker wrote in an open editorial: “A few hundreds (sic) receiving theirs is nothing to talk about when there are thousands still waiting. We accepted this offer as part of the VSEP brought by the former government (the PNM until 2010). They were in office for seven years post-VSEP but could not keep their words.”[3]

Browsing Internet editions of Trini newspapers, figures related to distributed land keep jumping left and right: there are those that seem to indicate the number of lots of land already transferred, sometime mentioned along with those that seem to indicate the lots that are to be delivered soon. For instance, in one case, a government official was quoted as saying: “So far, we have distributed 15 two-acre lots for residential purposes. As I speak now, we have 700 lots for residential purposes prepared with lease to distribute and we will do that in one month.”[4] The 2-acre lots, however, were destined for agricultural/food production, and without a timeframe mentioned, it’s difficult to evaluate what these figures really mean.

There is an additional issue: a financial one. On the wake to the VSEP, financial institutions offered products to Caroni ex-employees, who were lining up to receive significant cash payments. Apparently, one institution offered an investment with an annual return of 12 percent, and some groups say that as much as TTD 500 million was invested in this. Then came the financial crisis in the first decade of XXI Century, which brought zero returns… and the investors (ex-sugar workers) had still to pay 8 percent service. There’s some pressure from ex-sugar workers for the government to intervene, as it had done in previous financial debacles.

As the IUF Sugar Coordinator I worked closely with the All Trinidad when the VSEP was offered and the closure of sugar production was undergoing, and I was unimpressed by the lack of a well-thought social program and an economic alternative to the closing the production of sugar that, at least, should have taken into consideration the links between the sector and other areas of the economy[5]… not to mention the massive task of replacing the decades-old cane growing operations, facilitating agricultural and transportation infrastructure, making technology and inputs available, providing training and ensuring marketing systems, etc. for the 2-acre lots of land which the ex-sugar workers were to receive and use for food production. Caroni (1975) Ltd. was indeed a black hole swallowing tax payers’ money but just closing it was not an answer to Trinidad’s challenges of sensibly using its natural resources… a question that seems to be eclipsed by the windfall of oil revenues.

[1] This was in practice a non-negotiated and non-negotiable separation package. The union representing workers did not have a chance to negotiate it with the owner/government (Caroni was an state-owned and run company) and the employees not willing to take the package would have lost the package “enhancement” and would be dismissed anyways. See “Sweet words, harsh facts in Trinidad’s sugar industry,” J.Chullén, ILO Labour Education 2003/2-3 available at /groups/public/—ed_dialogue/—actrav/documents/publication/wcms_111457.pdf. Also related articles on this site, particularly The Sugar Worker, February 2003.

[2] “Union wants shake-up of Caroni Ltd board.” 25 June 2013,–of-Caroni-Ltd-board-213054831.html

[4] See “More Caroni land/leases for former sugar workers,” accessed 26 June 2013,

[5] A comment quoted on newspapers, which I have not been able to confirm, said that Angostura, a Trini rum producer, has invested in some 17,000 acres of land in Barbados to produce molasses required for their rum, molasses which Caroni used to supply. “The Closure of Caroni (1975) Limited,”  19 May 2013,

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