A roundtable on the future of the cane and sugar sector in Guyana was held on 16 October with the participation of all the main interest groups in the cane and sugar sector of Guyana was the opening session of an IUF/GAWU/NAACIE Sugar Seminar. Thirty-four delegates from GAWU and NAACIE, along with invitees from different sectors of the Guyana politics, industry and the media gathered at the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre to hear presentations by the minister of agriculture, representatives of the European delegation to Guyana, the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo), and the sugar unions.
Jorge Chullén, IUF global sugar coordinator, opened the roundtable by pointing to the IUF ongoing support to Guyana’s sugar unions, the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) and the National Association of Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Employees (NAACIE). The roundtable, he said, was an instance to “strengthen the country’s chances to successfully and responsibly respond to the current challenges, particularly those arising from the changes in the sugar regime of the European Union.” After a brief overview of the IUF’s sugar affiliation worldwide, he stressed mentioned IUF’s privileged position in the global cane/beet sugar and related sectors, particularly in relation to the EU/ACP sugar trade discussions: the IUF has affiliates in most of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries under the sugar protocol and in all the core sugar producers in the EU. The work of the IUF is based on union solidarity and the framework of decent jobs, which comprises employment opportunities, social protection, workers’ rights and social dialogue. The latter is a key element in the current discussions of the ACP sugar protocol countries with the EU, especially when the so-called national adaptation strategies are to be “nationally owned,” according to the EU.
The roundtable and seminar took place in the context of the recent announcement that the EU will renounce to the EU/ACP Sugar Protocol as of 1 October 2009, which the EU says would be replaced by certain advantages given through the currently under negotiations Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs).
The first presentation in the roundtable was by Robert Persaud, minister of agriculture, who touched directly on the EU’s renounciation of the sugar protocol, which comes after the decision to cut the preferential prices by 36 percent in the 2006-2010 period. He said that unilaterally renouncing the protocol will have a negative impact on vulnerable economies like Guyana’s, and that the protocol had provided benefits for both the ACPs and the EU. The refinery segment in the latter, said the minister, benefitted from a reliable supplier and stable import prices. The minister also mentioned GuySuCo’s expansion program proposed before the EU’s announcement of the cut in the preferential prices. The minister stressed the urgent need for the EU to disburse the promised financial assistance, a request that was echoed in all the presentations made by the Guyana sugar interest groups.
The second presentation was jointly made by Manuela Pinheiro and Rigo Belfaire, members of the EU delegation in Guyana. Ms Pinheiro emphasized that the sugar protocol cannot continue in existence because its quotas are incompatible with a policy on market access, and that the EPAs offer the possibility of guaranteeing favourable terms. She also mentioned the main aims of the EU’s financial assistance, which, depending on the decision by the ACP governments, offers the possibility to support industries to improve competitiveness, ensure long-term profitability of the sector, and the lessening of the social negative impact of the restructuring. Mr Belfair mentioned tha Guyana will receive USD 125 million in grants in the 2006-2010 period, starting with USD 7 million in 2006, then 38 million in 2007, 30 million in 2008, and ending with 25 million in each 2009 and 2010. The financial assistance, however, is “sector budget support”, which means support to the agricultural sector, as opposed to “project support,” which would have meant direct support to the cane and sugar sector.
“Front-loading,” or the provision of most of the financial support at the beginning of the transition period (i.e. 2006 and 2007) has been a main demand of the ACPs, which is especially relevant in the case of GuySuCo, when Guyana is compared to other producers in the region. Nick Jackson, GuySuCo’s CEO, gave a progress report of the expansion program launched in the late 1990s. A major component in the plan is building a new 100,000-tonne sugar factory in Skeldon (Berbice region), with Chinese backing and GuySuCo’s own resources. Other aspects of the program include a cogeneration plant and refinery also in Skeldon; agricultural programs to increase yields and improve cane quality; mechanization of agricultural operations which, according to the CEO, has not made jobs redundant but allows to offset shortfalls in labour; upgrades in factory equipment; and investments in value-added projects, such as packaging plant in Enmore. Jackson also said that GuySuCo and Guyana work towards ensuring that permanent shortfall in EU quotas given to Caribbean suppliers are redistributed to producers within the region, as happened in the case of the St Kitts quota, and the possibility that Barbados and Trinidad declare their permanent inability to cover theirs. He also pointed that the US quota, which has doubled to 24,000 tonnes because of recent falls in production, is also a market that should be kept.
In his presentation to the roundtable, Seepaul Narine, general secretary of GAWU speaking ob behalf of the two unions, strongly supported GuySuCo’s expansion program highlighting the number of direct and indirect jobs created in the sector. These translate into about 100,000 Guyanese who depend on the sector’s wellbeing of. He also spoke from the vantage point that he has been the only trade union representative attending a recent EU/ACP meeting (September 2007, Brussels) as well as the Cariforum/Fiji–EU meeting in Jamaica the week before to the roundtable. The participation of a trade union representative as part of a country’s delegation speaks volume of the status reached by the unions in the struggle for the continued operations of the Guyanese industry. Seepaul, however, also expressed the unions’ grave concerns with the implementation of the Skeldon project, because too many delays have already resulted in a six-month postponement in the start of operations, now scheduled for February 2008.
Questions from the participants showed their serious concerns with the renounciation by the EU of the sugar protocol, timing on the disbursement of the financial assistance, and the social impact of the price cut already introduced, especially in relation to the future operation of the estates in the Demerara region, which are deemed too-high cost.
Kenneth Joseph, general secretary of NAACIE, gave the closing remarks to the roundtable stressing that the unions were at the frontline of the protest when the EU made known their intention to cut the preferential price. Kenneth said that it was through the IUF that they learned details of the proposals, and they mobilized the workers but also representatives of the government and the sugar corporation. In fact, in August 2005, the then minister of foreign affairs and GuySuCo’s CEO participated in the mobilization organized by the unions to picket the EU delegation while delivering a letter expressing the unions’ concerns on the negative social impact of the preferential price.
The roundtable’s moderator, David Hayle from the Caricom Secretariat, adjourned the meeting by reminding all participants about the need for Caribbean countries to work together, and the possible legal action of the ACP regarding the EU’s renounciation of the sugar protocol. He thanked all participants, and stressed once again the support of the IUF to the sugar unions in Guyana.