Jamaica: Occupational Health and Safety Workshop in Frome
As a follow-up to the October 2007 meeting on Occupational Health and Safety in the Frome Sugar Estate in Jamaica, union members of the Frome Safety Committee met from 11-13 August in Savanna-la-Mar to evaluate the work done since the October 2007 meeting. The meeting was also attended by women delegates from other sugar estates as well as national officers of UAWU and BITU, the IUF affiliates present in the sector.
The October 2007 workshop was attended by some 50 people from the Frome Sugar Estate, including members of the safety committee as well as safety monitors, reviewed the safety standards, and visited factory and field operations. Recommendations were then made, and the group agreed to work towards their implementation and meet, some six months later, to evaluate the results.
The first task of the workshop was to identify the areas where improvements have been achieved. Notwithstanding the severe difficulties and problematic areas in OHS, delegates agreed that some improvements have been achieved.
Achievements in OHS matters
1- Some of the walkways have been paved
2- Workers the boiler department have:
a. Received safety boots and respirators
b. Go for medical check-ups, including blood tests, once per year, re: general health
3- In the field work:
a. Some workers in the spraying have been given respirators; they also receive a pair of overalls; a pair of gloves; rubber aprons; and go for monthly medical check-ups (which include blood tests)
b. In the application of fertilizer, some of the women workers have received gloves, boots and overalls.
c. The house cart used to transport workers to the fields has been repaired, as recommended last October, but is still small for the number of workers it carries.
4- Sanitary facilities for women workers have been improved in the field operations department, located next to the factory.
5- Communication with management continues good, and has improved in some instance, but management always complain of lack of money as the main obstacle for further improvements.
6- Walkways for physically challenged workers are now in place in the administrative areas; and parking lot/spaces have now been marked.
7- Communication with national union officers have improved, up-to-date information is shared back and forth with the officers; and specifically an UAWU officer pay regular visits to the estate.
8- Six water carts are now in good working condition.
9- It has been made clear that workers will receive safety boots once every two years (on a replacement basis).
10- As a result of this work on OHS and the improvements achieved, temporary workers are now integrated in the unions; for instance, management in the past has resisted providing them with safety gears.
The union members of the safety committee also looked at some problem areas, which they identified as follows:
1- Management complains that there is not enough money to implement decisions or recommendations; sometimes this results in management providing not the right PPE: e.g. instead of respirators they give dust masks: during a meeting with some safety monitors management said that respirators were too expensive.
2- Not all workers in the boilers department have received safety gear
3- Poor general condition of roofs in the factory; in some areas workers need to use umbrellas not to get wet.
4- Poor lighting inside the factory is a problem; sometimes light bulbs are not even available, such in the case of the evaporator station.
5- Since October 2007 there has been no meeting of safety monitors, who number 60 in the estate, although one ad-hoc meeting between 6 monitors and management representatives took place in February
6- The Frome H&S committee met regularly on the last Friday of each month. (The committee includes representatives from management, three chief union delegates and representatives of the staff association.)
7- Bagasse dust continues as an intermittent problem, particularly in the section between the mills and the boilers, where frequently comes down on workers. In some cases, workers without proper PPE need to improvise protection using stockings; some workers suffer from bleeding noses.
8- Asbestos is still present in the old pipes within the factory
9- Workers in field operations lack of proper head gear.
10- Fumes from caustic soda are affecting workers (the problem area is located on the front of the factory).
11- There have been not enough visits to field/factory operations by chief union delegates since October 2007.
A report from the October 2007 workshop on OHS in Frome Sugar Estate is available here
Visit to field operations
It is part of the IUF global sugar activities that delegates visit workplaces allowing the grounding of class-room type of work on direct observations. Participants met with a group of workers in the fertilizer application crew, during the workers’ time of rest.
The participant’s general opinion was that few changes have taken place since the visit from October 2007. The following are their comments:
1- Despite that some workers have received some equipment (women got overalls) most of the workers still lack basic PPE such as protective footwear, gloves, head gear, etc.
2- Availability of drinking water availability is quite limited; the workers have access to a water pail and ice but the jugs used to carry the water into the fields are not appropriate and appeared quite dirty. In an unsafe practice, chemical jugs are kept next to water containers.
3- The house cart has been repaired but is still small for the number of workers being transported and its floor is still in need of repairs.
4- During their period of rest, workers were lying on fertilizer bags under the trucks. The latter practice recalled some of the participants of a fatality in the estate. On 7 June this year, 2008 Mr. Walton Williams lost his life when he was sitting on the turntable of a park trailer and a tractor driven ran into the back of the trailer.
5- There are no sanitary conveniences/facilities available, and management said that their attempts at building permanent facilities have been frustrated by theft and vandalism.
5- There appears to be a lack of maintenance of the equipment and machines; for instance, tractors lack safety rails to protect employees; the suspension spring on cart is not the correct one for the model.
6- No proper steps to climb into the house cart, which is very high
7- There are no washing facilities for workers (e.g. detergent or soap, etc.) They cannot wash their hands after applying fertilizers and before sitting down to eat their lunch. On the same issue, cooking “facilities” are extremely poor and unhealthy with utensils, pots and pans close to fertilizer bags, dirt.
8- Tractors #888 & #889 have improvised seating
9- Finger nails of workers are in very bad conditions due to their ongoing contact with fertilizers.
10- There was no water cart, and the management representative accompanying the visit said it was too expensive to have a water cart in the fields. Delegates from Frome said that water tanks/carts are available in the estate.
11- Delegates felt that the management representative accompanying the visit presented two problems: on one side, he was always eager to explain shortcomings as direct result of lack of financial resources, and, more detrimental, workers appeared not too sure about talking about working conditions because of fear of being penalized or ‘disciplined’ after the visitors were gone.
The Jamaican sugar sector
The OHS workshop took place in a moment when the divestment of the Sugar Company of Jamaica (SCJ) is apparently reaching its final stages. The SCJ comprises five of the seven mills in the island and has, for years, being a major drain in the national budget, with multimillion dollar debts, which more than once have been condoned by the government.
A Brazilian company, Infinity Bio-Energy, has won the bidding for the factories and the long-term leasing of cane fields, as well as the PetroJam refinery, located in Kingston. According to union sources, the deal is worth USD 25 million, and the new owners have said that their main objective is the production of ethanol for export to the Unites States. In this model, the PetroJam refinery, with an annual production of 40 million litres of alcohol, is a key piece. Despite that the SCJ factories have the capacity to produce over 120,000 tonnes of sugar per year, the deal call for the Brazilian group to produce only half of this, 60,000 tonnes of sugar per year.
Workers in the SCJ are going through tense moments, as many participants manifested. The government has ensured that sugar workers’ payments are guaranteed, for which the government would used some of the EU financial assistance received via the “accompanying measures” to the EU sugar reforms. Payments would cover a 14-week salary in lieu of termination notice and severance payments, according to the collective labour agreement in place. In the medium run, workers are also worried about the level of employment after the divestment process is completed. Spokespersons for Infinity Bio-Energy have not offered any information on the number of workers the new company would need, but they have said that labour requirements would be “significant” lower to the almost 7,000 workers currently employed.
The OHS workshop was timely, in the opinion of the participants and unions, in giving the workers a firmer view on issues to take over with the new owners.