English-speaking Caribbean Regional Sugar Meeting: 24-26 June 2009, Kingston, Jamaica

The sugar work in the English-speaking Caribbean is very important for the IUF Global Sugar Program in cane and sugar (and cane for ethanol) sectors, because it comprises basic elements and challenges which properly understood and analysed are relevant for situations in other countries, and for other unions in the global cane and sugar sector.

From 24-26 June, representatives from six sugar workers unions from the English-speaking Caribbean met in regional meeting in Jamaica to review the sugar situation in their islands and evaluate and discuss future work in sugar and bananas. The meeting took place at a moment when the stated-owned and run Sugar Company of Jamaica (SCJ), the island’s largest sugar producer with five factories (out of the island’s seven), is in the process of divestment. In fact, the government announced having completed the sale of two SCJ estates, St Thomas Sugar and Trelawny Sugar, on the day the meeting started. No observer can miss the heavy political component that the divestment process implies: the cane and sugar sector extends itself over 32 of the 60 political Jamaica constituencies (with single-seat representation). A week earlier, all employees in the SCJ had received their severance payments, ending their contractual ties with the SCJ and, at the same time, injecting significant amounts of cash into the Jamaican rural economy.


Social Dialogue in the Divestment of the Sugar Company of Jamaica

A common reaction regarding the SCJ divestment, as reported by the local media, is that the country cannot continue paying, with taxpayers’ money, the mounting debts and inefficiencies of the SJC. Divestment was the best solution. In fact, some three years ago, the then Prime Minister Patterson told the press that his administration was ready to transfer the ownership of the SCJ at the price of one dollar (he did not specify if it was a US or a Jamaican dollar, however) to anyone interested in acquiring it, with the condition that the new owner(s) would not request any loan guarantees from the government. In the late 1980s, the government of Jamaica had bought most of the industry back for one dollar (it really bought a multimillion dollar debt), after a consortium comprising Tate & Lyle and some Jamaican entrepreneurs decided not to continue operations, thus closing a failed privatisation process.

The opening session of the meeting was an exercise on social dialogue and dealt with the divestment of the Sugar Company of Jamaica (SCJ). Representatives of BITU and UAWU, the IUF affiliates in the cane/sugar sector; the head of the All Island’s Farmers Association; a representative from the Ministry of Agriculture; and the IUF Global Sugar Coordinator addressed the meeting. The IUF representative underlined that, among many important issues, the opening session showed a trade union movement ready and able to promote dialogue with other groups in the sector. This approach, which had a similar response from government and farmers, is missing in other privatisation processes, as in the case of the Air Jamaica divestment, which lacks of clear information and participation from groups directly concerned.

Social Dialogue, one the four pillars of the “Decent Job framework, is a proposition much easier in theory than in practice, and it does not relate to the level of economic development of a country (e.g. GDP per capita index) but depends on the groups’ ability to have an educated discussion on the main issues related to their sector. Such process requires equal sharing of reliable and timely information. The Jamaican unions ask what future vision there is for the cane and sugar sector in the island. A question which the groups need to work to find out in a process that is as important as the answer itself: an inclusive and transparent approach would muster the support from all groups involved, especially is the sector is dominated by public ownership, even when there is no guarantee about the final success of any proposal.

The Jamaican unions say that in the past three years the government (through two different administrations) has talked about moving from a sector based on sugar to one based on cane (i.e. ethanol and sugar), and it now appears that the idea is to go back to sugar once again. Such might be the direction taken in St Thomas, which has been acquired- at least to the moment of writing – by a consortium comprising the island’s largest private cane farmer, and the news that the Italian Eridiana Sadam is interested in three other SCJ estates, with plans to set up a refinery in Frome (on the west end of Jamaica).

In a tightly interrelated cane and sugar (and ethanol) world, international developments are indeed a force to reckon, and they only underline how crucially important is the strength of national policies, which in the Caribbean – more than in other part of the world – have a strong regional component: e.g. Caricom sugar policies, single market economy, and the like. On the other hand, while the state ownership of the SCJ may tend to confine social dialogue to the divestment process, the challenge would be to continue such dialogue and participation of the sugar groups after the divestment is completed. Understandably, the unions said in informal conversations that they were ready to engage the announced new owners before the next harvest begins.

The opening session was followed by a presentation by the head of the Sugar Transformation Unit (STU) the next day. The STU is mandated to oversee the implementation of the sugar adaptation strategy, which includes the privatisation of the SCJ, economic diversification, and support to displaced workers. The STU’s 5-year program (2008-2013) comprises social aspects, including the social services, economic diversification, environmental sustainability and management costs. With 97 percent of its budget financed through EU Accompanying Measures for Sugar (in relation to the EU sugar reforms), its success not only depends on the ability of the STU to integrate workers, farmers and new owners, but also on timely disbursement of EU funds, and Jamaica’s compliance with administrative procedures required by the EU – on which the Caribbean officials do not have an unblemished record.

A key aspect in the STU’s program is the definition of “displaced workers.” Defining who a displaced worker is demands a fluid working relationship between the new sugar owners and the STU. The former is asked to deliver a list of the people they would rehire when taking control of a given estate, for the STU to put in place a supported program, somewhat tailored to the needs of the individual worker being displaced. Of course, many questions will arise in this process, as they did during the presentation: for instance, what would happen if a “recalled” worker is dismissed few months after starting employment and the STU does not have him or her on the list of beneficiaries? See here the Power Point presentation from George Callaghan, Head of the Sugar Transformation Unit. The presentation has been edited – mostly removing pictures – to reduce its size.

Country Reports

In the second section of the meeting, the attending delegates made a presentation on the sugar situation in their countries. In the late 1990s, there were six E/S Caribbean countries producing and exporting sugar under the EU protocol. Since then, major changes have taken place, and two of the countries, St Kitts and Trinidad, ended the production of sugar, albeit Trinidad continues operating its sugar refinery. In addition, In Barbados, the sector continues facing uncertainty of its, increasing competition for land, and a reduction in cane areas and long-term reduction on production levels. Notwithstanding such changes, the English-speaking Caribbean region continues to present challenges that have international relevance.

The Guyanese cane and sugar sector is a case in point: it opened a brand new sugar factory in Skeldon (Berbice) in March 2009. The factory, when in full operation, would add close to 100,000 tonnes per year, which would help reducing costs, placing the sector on a much secure footing than in neighbouring countries. For a country the size and economic capacity of Guyana, the investment represents a major commitment towards making agriculture – and cane/sugar – a key component of the national economy. From this perspective, it is difficult to find a comparable case around the world. For instance, the astounding growth of the Brazilian cane, sugar and ethanol complex of the past 20 years takes place in a country of over 200 million people, which ranks among the world’s 10 largest economies, and was able to sell over 2 million new flex-fuel cars only in year 2007. By comparison, Guyana’s population totals some 740,000 people and sugar production has fluctuated around 250,000 tonnes in the past three years. Were the Skeldon program to fail, it will have an enormous negative repercussion on the sector and the country as a whole: some 100,000 Guyanese depend directly on cane growing and sugar manufacturing. In contrast, a failure of one of the 40 sugar projects announced for the western region of Sao Paulo (just one region in the country) will mean almost nothing to the sector and the country.

Another issue is the arrival to the E/S Caribbean of fair trade (FT) arrangements, common in other crops like bananas, tea and coffee. In 2008, Tate & Lyle announced an arrangement to buy 77,000 tonnes of FT sugar from Belize, which represents almost 70 percent of the total Belizean sugar production. The deal also made available an enormous amount of financial resources to the sector and the communities dependent on cane and sugar. On one hand, FT prices are secure and commercially beneficial for the producer; on the other, the arrangement also promised about USD 68 per tonne under the so-called “social premium”. Notwithstanding such amount of financial resources, the Belizean delegate underlined a rift in the farmers’ organisations, which have prevented them to have full access to the social premium monies.

Yet another kind of sugar situation is represented by Trinidad, which was presented by Rudy Indarsingh of the All Trinidad General Workers Union. Using Skype, the voice over IP software, Rudy reviewed for the meeting the closing of the sugar sector in his island, the union’s efforts to rebuild membership (after having lost some 8,000 members from a total of about 9,000), and the call for resuming work with the IUF agricultural project, even though the union lost their sugar constituency. Areas such as Occupational Health and Safety and work on Women Issues were suggestions made for a possible future work with the All Trinidad union.

Read the Country Reports here:

Review of Activities

The third and final section of the project was a review of the work done over recent years, which feed into a discussion on the future direction of the work in sugar and bananas. Three main inputs were used for this section. One was a report from a trade union exchange on women working in sugar and bananas, which took place immediately before the sugar meeting and counted with the participation of two overseas delegates. The exchange included a “planning session” with the participation of women delegates from the Jamaican unions. Several of the women delegates have been in contact with the project for some years and are familiar with the work done. Main recommendations presented to the sugar meeting revolved around training for women and the drive to expanding women membership in unions. The delegates also underlined a one-to-one approach as a method of work when contacting women in the workplace, and requested relevant information through publications of adequate length and language. Jamaica: Trade Union Exchange and Women Workers

The second document was a review of a Yahoo Group created after an electronic communication and Internet training for sugar union in the E/S Caribbean held in February 2007 in Guyana. The Yahoo Group was created by the participants for the participants, a initiative welcome by the IUF Global Sugar Program. It was monitored Narda Mohamed (GAWU), who also wrote the review and presented her main findings via Skype. After 27 months of continuous use of the Yahoo Group (March 2007 – June 2009), Narda’s review summarised quite useful information on the impact of the ICT trainings, which would contribute to future regional activities and the current work in Africa. Also, it gave an insight on the way individuals participating in the training (any training) personally respond to group requests to maintain contacts with other participants – beyond their commitment to their union and the IUF Global Sugar Program. Narda’s report is available here.

A fluid communication between the IUF Global Sugar and some of the unions, facilitated by the use of electronic communication and the Internet, has made possible a successful implementation of activities in sugar and bananas. These activities have contributed to strengthening the unions’ position in their own countries, and have created a common understanding of international sugar developments. Electronic communication and the Internet have permitted a rich experience and created positive working styles: e.g. the IUF sugar coordinator keeps daily communication with unions (at no extra cost), making the unions active partners in his daily work; hopefully, he has become part of their office scene. This model is being used – with some differences and limitations – in the sugar project in East and southern Africa.

The third document was an overview of the work in the 1999-2008 period. The global sugar coordinator stated, once and again, that the Caribbean regional work has been a pillar for the global sugar program -explained with limitations at the beginning of this article. He underlined the consistency of the work, the continuous presence of the IUF in sugar and bananas, and the respect gained from sugar groups and government agencies involved. These have strengthened the unions’ position in their own countries; aspects that are clearly seen on issues such as the EU/ACP sugar negotiations, and Occupational Health and Safety programs in the sugar estates. They have also strengthened the unions’ structures, with activities targeting medium-level leadership and grass-root workers. Activities in the 1999-2008 period reached a total of 1,814 participants. In 2002-2008, out of 1,240 participants, 355 were women (28.6 percent). Here are available a PowerPoint Presentation on the Activities and Statistics on the Project .

International union solidarity has been a result of the work as well. Sugar and banana unions in the Caribbean have responded positively when asked to be in solidarity with the struggles of unions in the region and elsewhere. Our most recent activity? Our participation in the IUF campaign in solidarity with workers in Iran.

What is next?

The sugar and bananas sectors will continue their readjustment and restructuring, influencing the economic and social lives of the countries in question. For instance, while the privatisation of the Sugar Company of Jamaica (SCJ) can be seen from the policy/political view, there also is the process of the Sugar Transformation Unit (STU) targeting displaced workers, and the sudden influx of cash in the hands of the sugar workers who received their payments in lieu of notice (December 2008) and their severance package (June 2009).

The accepted understanding is that the new owners of the SCJ – whoever they turn out to be – will hire about half the current number of workers, while is not clear what kind of skills the new labour force would be required to have. Because of these and other considerations, the privatisation of the SCJ has a global relevance: e.g. the government in Kenya announced in June 2009 the privatisation process of the sugar sector, which shares common elements with the Jamaican experience. Whether the level of social dialogue reached in Jamaica can be reproduced in Kenya, is still to be seen.

Guyana’s investments in cane and sugar will also have a significant impact in the immediate future of the regional sector, particularly if Caricom is true to their objective of a comprehensive and integrated regional development. Meanwhile, the overall process of restructuring of the sector will be a test for the effective use of the EU financial support: whether it can make a difference in supporting any of the proposed “sugar action plans” drafted by the Caribbean countries under the EU/ACP arrangements or, as has happened in the past, such financial aid would end up by having a limited impact on the countries. Two of the countries where this process is quite advanced, St Kitts and Trinidad, also show the challenge to expand the scope of the original IUF sugar and bananas project to other sectors where the unions also organise.

Finally, the sugar meeting recommended that the Women’s work should develop its own full-fledged segment in the project, with adequate resources and support from the unions. Women participants have consistently shown their commitment to the IUF work in sugar and bananas, their creativity, their ability to lead, and have produced relevant information on the women workers’ situation in the sectors. Many of them are able and ready to assume leadership positions in their unions and IUF structures – and the IUF sugar and bananas project in the English-speaking Caribbean has contributed to their development.

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