With a report by Frederica Riley, WAWU-Dominica and Uranie Heeram, GAWU-Guyana
IUF Trade Union Exchange of Women in the Sugar and Bananas Sector of the English – speaking Caribbean
22-24 June 2009, Jamaica
22 June. Visit to St. Mary’s Bananas Estate.
The bananas sector in Jamaica is facing the final stages of a major restructuring that has closed production of bananas for exports in the parish of St Thomas, and a reduction in production at St Mary’s Banana Estate. At present, production is geared towards the domestic market, including the processing of bananas, such in the banana chips manufacturing. The main banana group, the Jamaica Producers’ Group, is investing in some Central American countries (i.e. Honduras) to offset the production in the island.
The foreign visitors met with women union delegates in St Mary, who represent the IUF-affiliated unions, the UAWU and the BITU. They explained some of the fundamental issues such as long working hours because of low wages, which translate to about JMD 7,000 per fortnight after deductions (USD 1.00=JMD 87.00). The visitors and their hosts visited then the banana plantation and observe working conditions.
As part of the international solidarity campaign in support to the Iranian Workers, the delegates and the workers agreed to participate in it and photos were posted on the www.justiceforiranianworkers.org
23 June. Visit to St. Thomas Sugar Estate.
St Thomas Sugar in located on the eastern end of the island, and it was part of the Sugar Company of Jamaica (SCJ). Its sale was announced on the same day that the foreign delegates visited the estate. The new owner is the largest cane farmer in the island, who announced plans to reactivate production of raw sugar. The sale price was quoted at USD 500,000, and long-term leases on land at yearly rate of USD 53.00 per hectare. The new company, the workers said, is called the “Golden Grove Sugar Estate.” (The Trelawny estate was also divested the same day.)
The delegates met with local women delegates and factory representatives, although given the lack of cane, the factory was not in operation. At a meeting with the delegates, local workers expressed some of their major concerns such as the number of workers who would be “called back” to work after the new owners take full control of operations. All workers received a payment in lieu of notice in December 2008 and their severance payment on 16 June, many of them are concerned with the possibility of obtaining a job. The accepted notion in the national discussions on the SCJ divestment is that labour requirements in the new operations will be no more than half the current levels. Workers in St Thomas are hired on a month-to-month basis, and several workers are hired from other parishes.
The delegation also visited the Belrock Housing Scheme for the St. Thomas Sugar Workers, where there are some nineteen houses under construction. The workers buy the land, and they build their own houses. Some funds are provided by the National Trust Fund. A member in the hosting delegation was a BITU trade unionist, Bro. Harold Brown, who has participated in IUF activities and now is the major of Mount Bay, with direct concerns on the future of the St Thomas sugar estate.
24 June. Planning Meeting.
As a linked between the trade union exchange and the English-speaking Caribbean Sugar Meeting, there was a session in the morning of 24 June, devoted to the future activities in the Caribbean sugar and bananas project. In addition to the two foreign delegates, also in attendance were Novelette James, BITU-Monymusk Sugar Estate; Sardia Harris, BITU-St Thomas Sugar Estate; Daphne Strachan, BITU-St Mary; Michelle Bennett, UAWU-Monymusk Sugar; Clifton Grant, UAWU and Jorge Chullén, IUF Sugar/Bananas.
The meeting reaffirmed the general objectives of increasing the number of women members of unions and their presence in union leadership structures, the need to develop their skills, and boost their morale and self esteem. Some practical recommendations resulted from the discussions, such as the one-on-one approach to co-workers which demands training, communication skills, information in adequate format and language. A proposal then ensued by which the participants agree to try this one-on-one approach for the next six months, and report back to each other. The IUF sugar and bananas project will support with the provision of information materials on issues such as Workers Rights, Maternity protection, Discrimination, Occupation Health & Safety and Equality.