IUF Workshop on Occupational Health and Safety in Frome Sugar Estate
23-25 October 2007
Approximately 50 participants comprising all the safety committee members of Frome Sugar Estate, trade union representatives and members of the staff association attended a three-day workshop on Occupational Health and Safety from 23-25 October, at the Commingle Hotel in Savanna-la-Mar. Also participating in the workshop were women delegates from four Caribbean unions: WAWU in Dominica, CTAWU from St Vincent, GAWU from Guyana, and BWU from Barbados.
The welcoming remarks were made by Clifton Grant (University Allied Workers Union – UAWU) who underlined that the workshop, organised by the IUF global sugar program and the Jamaican affiliates UAWU and BITU, was an effort to improve the safety conditions in the country’s sugar sector. He said that a similar exercise had been implemented by the IUF and the Guyanese unions in February 2007 and that, based on the success of that training, the Jamaican unions and the IUF had agreed to develop an activity focusing on only one Jamaican sugar estate. He then invited Wycliffe Matthews (Bustamante Industrial Trade Union- BITU), to chair the workshop. Wycliffe emphasised, as he has done in his long involvement in OHS matters in the Jamaican sugar sector, the key role the unions play in protecting the health and lives of workers. He recalled some of the fatal accidents which took place in the 2005 Jamaican sugar crop, and said that most of them had been preventable accidents which ended fatally because of ignoring basic OHS procedures. Jorge Chullén, IUF global sugar coordinator, emphasised that the method of work was based on a collaborative and participatory approach, which included visits to factory and field operations, and that the discussions and recommendations would be based primarily on the participants’ observations.
Jesper Nielsen, 3F Denmark, who served as a main facilitator to the workshop launched the working sessions with a presentation on the “Role of the Trade Union Safety Representatives and the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Committee’. He emphasized that it is a fundamental right of workers to protect their lives and health while at work and that unions have been concerned with OHS issues for a long time.
To bring the discussion closer to the participants’ experience, some questions were put forward. For instance, whether the safety committee (at Frome and other Jamaican sugar estates) can in fact take decisions on OHS matters, whether the unions have a direct influence in the committees and if improvements were mainly achieved through collective bargaining or also through the work of the safety committees. Do the workers have access to the required information? Do they get proper training? Do they have the right to bring their own ‘experts’? Most of the questions were answered on the positive, with participants showing a defensive attitude which, in the experience of this writer, is the initial reaction (and in extreme cases, the only) observed when dealing with OHS issues in the workplace.
As the workshop depended primarily on the participants’ observations, some recommendations were given in terms of systematising their approach. For instance, try and recognise the good elements in particular situation; adopt a ‘room for improvement’ approach rather than a mostly critical one, and to trust their own experience as a guideline when observing conditions.
The afternoon of 23 October was devoted to a visit to the Frome factory, which was in the maintenance period, although many of the main OHS issues were there to be seen. The morning of 24 October was for a field visit to observe mainly in the application of herbicides and fertilizers, weeding operations, and working conditions of agricultural workers. In the field, an important number of women workers are hired in less-skilled jobs, such as the ones mentioned.
Photos from the visit to Frome factory: There is an explicit message that health and safety of workers is important for the company. However, some structural improvements are needed, such as covering trenches, and improved design of working space: fumes from welding can be push away from the welder with the use of fans.
After these two visits, the plenary discussions were lively and impressions and opinions were exchanged freely. The mood of the meeting changed from a ‘defensive’ stance to a collaborative approach to resolve issues. An important analytical element (with strong political content in the workplace) was then introduced: when dealing with OHS issues, the proper approach, something that the unions and workers should strive for, is to first eliminate hazards/risks (e.g. substituting hazardous chemicals); then to remove or isolate them (e.g. control workers exposure to risks); and finally try and protect the worker with the adequate personal protective gear, training on its use and information on the job at hand, and the products used (e.g. when applying herbicides workers should be aware of the product they are using, be properly protected, use the PPE, know how to handle the chemicals, etc.) As explained, hazard is a source or circumstance which may cause harm to workers; risk is the probability of workers being harmed as a result of a hazard.
Photos from the field visit: application of herbicides and fertilizers: PPE is provided to workers, although not all of them wear the propor equipment. For instance, the worker on the left actually wears a dusk-mask. In the application of fertilizer, where a significant number of women are employed, workers handle fertilizers with bare hands.
In the final day of the workshop, participants were divided in groups to work on trade union recommendations to improve OHS practices in Frome; and had a session on role playing around on a safety committee meeting. Jorge made a presentation on the ILO Convention 184 (Safety and Health in Agriculture) as a framework for understanding the use of international legislation available on OHS matters, and explained the importance for workers and unions to have the ILO Conventions ratified by their respective countries, which would push for the integration of the conventions’ articles in the national legislations. In many developing countries, the ILO Conventions (and Recommendations) on OHS would produce a marked improvement of national legislation, such as in the case of Jamaica.
Photos on preparing food in the cane fields and transportation available to field workers: The lady is preparing curried chicken and pork, as well as roti (Indian dishes). Note the environment where she is cooking, and the discarded bags of fertilizers next to the food she is preparing. Transportation facilities for field workers need urgent improvement, as shown on the picture on the right.
In a plenary session, the participants discussed a list of recommendations to improve OHS practices in the Frome Sugar Estate. THE RECOMMENDATIONS ARE AVAILABLE HERE.
By going through the list of recommendations, it is clear that most of them fell in the category of low-cost and effective measure to reduce risks and create a different approach to OHS (with a view to create an OHS culture with the drive coming from the ground up). The participants were satisfied with the recommendations and vowed to press the Frome safety committee into action.
Some proposals for following up were discussed, among them, the participants’ commitment to take the recommendations to the next meeting of the Frome safety committee, and for the unions to share them with the employers in the sector, the government agencies and with local union committees and workers in other sugar estates. The unions also committed themselves to work towards the ratification of ILO Convention 184. The participants suggested to hold a workshop during the 2008 crop, where an evaluation of their work would be done (based on the recommendations), as well as to identify areas of training to improve their work as union members of the safety committee at Frome. Jorge mad a strong recommendation to the participants to reach a gender balance within the safety committee as well as in the participants to the workshop, because of the significant number of women workers (particularly in the field and clerical areas) and the need for their concerns to be represented fully.
Groupwork on the photo above.
The hosts unions (BITU and UAWU) and the IUF thanked management of Frome for having released the participants to attend the workshop and allowed the visits to factory and field operations for training purposes. Special thanks were given to 3F from Denmark for their support to the workshop through Jesper’s participation, and to Kommunal, a Swedish agricultural workers union, and the Swedish LO-TCO, which have supported the IUF Caribbean’s sugar and bananas work for several years.