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A home of their own

Sugar workers thank EU Sugar Transformation Programme for making their dreams come true

BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor - Special assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, August 04, 2014    

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Instead of weariness there was a look of pride on the face of Ann Simmonds as she heaved bucketsful of mortar for the workmen building one of the many two-bedroom units in Hampton Court Housing Scheme, St Thomas.

The delight on her face was not only because she was earning a honest bread but the fact that she was literally helping to build the first house she can call her own.

Simmonds is one of several women temporarily employed as labourers on the two housing projects in the parish to relocate sugar workers under the European Union (EU) Sugar Transformation Programme which is improving living standards for former and current sugar workers.

Persons who were born in the wooden shacks in Golden Grove, originally built as temporary housing for seasonal sugar workers in the 1920s, are still living there with their children and grandchildren, having never been able to earn enough to afford real housing.

The dilapidated structures which have taken a battering from various hurricanes are on their last legs, with some of the units looking ready to topple off the high columns on which they were constructed.

Last year, expectant residents gathered on former cane lands in Hampton Court to witness the breaking of ground for infrastructural work for the 225 EU-funded houses, which will see them finally being able to enjoy the comfort of a flush toilet and piped water in their homes.

Some of these residents living in the dilapidated barracks, were relocated following Hurricane Ivan in 2004 to what they thought would have been better living conditions. However, 10 years later their living conditions are even worse as the area they were relocated has a sewerage problem.

But now these residents are finally getting the opportunity to own a concrete one, two or three bedroom house dependent on the size of their families.

Earnings from the temporary employment will help towards paying the $40,000 to process the title to houses which are given to them absolutely free.

The residents, in particular, the women who were seen happily toiling away when the Jamaica Observer visited the community recently, said they are still in awe that the day has finally come when their dream of owing a proper house has come true.

"Bowy mi feel really good about getting a nice house like this and mi only hope mi can really get fi move in dere for Christmas because having a nice little house of mi own like this would certainly mek mi Christmas bright," said Simmonds.

"They give us two weeks each to work and they rotate it but I wouldn't mind if mi did get a three months to carry mortar," said Simmonds who pointed out that some of the earnings from her temporary work will have to be used to outfit two of her three children for back to school. Her third child, now an adult, was working alongside her.

Another beneficiary, who opted to remain anonymous said even after the contract was signed for the house she was still doubtful that it would become a reality.

"A lot of times we see contracts sign and still things don't come to pass but today when I look and see the quality houses that they giving us for free I can tell you I am beyond words because mi never dream that at my age me woulda live fi own a nice little house like this," said the woman who is the beneficiary of a two-bedroom unit.

Having worked in sugar since she was a teenager, the 52-year-old grandmother said "it is a blessed day when sugar workers who have to bend dem back and toil so hard in the sun hot can have a decent little place to call them own and me more than grateful".

Another resident, Sophia Shaw said not even in her wildest dreams could she ever afford to purchase such a house .

According to her the residents are overjoyed at the prospect of finally being able to relocate from the impoverished conditions under which they have been living at the place they call Ivan Scheme.

"The conditions down there rough bad because of the sewerage system so mi caan wait fi finally move up here so," she said.

At the contract signing many residents were at the point of tears at the prospect of finally owning their own house.

Resident Isaac Peckoo is not sure of his age, but he believes he is now in his early 80s. What he is certain of, however, is that he has been living in the barracks since he was seven years old, and not once did he cultivate any hope of being able to afford better living conditions.

Peckoo, who dropped out of school in his early teens to work in the canefields, said he could never afford more suitable accommodations to house his children and grandchildren, who all live in the barracks. But some six years after failing health forced him to retire from the back-breaking task of cutting cane, Peckoo now has hope that one day he will be able to live in a real home.

Peckoo recalled his father writing to the head of the farm in 1939 asking if he and his family could be temporarily housed in one of the barracks while he worked on the sugar estate. His father, he said, had worked on the cowdrawn carts which transported sand to the site during the construction of the barracks.

"Initially, people did fi live dere just fi crop time, but den everybody start staying on and having dem family and just live deh permanently," Peckoo told the Jamaica Observer North East then.

He recalled those early days when the mothers stayed at the barracks to raise their children while the men went out to work in the canefields from the wee hours of the morning until sundown.

But the children were forced to grow up early as, given the meagre wages, boys were forced to seek employment on the estate from a very early age.

"Ah had was to leave school and start working at age 14 on the estate to help mi parents to raise the smaller children en," he recalled.

He first started working at the distillery, then, as he got older and stronger, he went to the canefields. It was the only job he ever knew until his retirement in 2006.

As he started his own family, Peckoo said he had to use plyboard to construct an additional room at the back of the barrack he occupies. But that has been as much as he could afford to do with the structure, which is now falling down around him.

Sixty-eight-year-old Derval Grey, who was born in the barracks, said the buildings have not been repaired since the 60s.

Like his neighbours, Grey said despite working for 45 years on the sugar estate he was never able to pool together enough resources to purchase a home of his own. He recalled his father sacrificing his own opportunity to buy a plot of land in order to see him complete his high school education.

"The then superintendent of the estate was selling him two-and-a-half square of land for 30 sterling pound, but him wouldn't buy it because he didn't want to sacrifice my education for the land," he said, adding that although his parents could not read, they, nevertheless wanted their children to make the best of education.

But the land which eluded his parents seemed to have eluded Grey, too.

"I have oftentimes contemplated building somewhere of mi own and ah save towards it, but inflation always make it impossible," he said.

Grey said although he was a brilliant accounts student he could not continue his education further than Happy Grove High, as he had to seek employment in the payroll department immediately upon leaving school.

"I was the second child and first boy for mi parents' 12 children and so when mi father get sick ah had to work and care for all my siblings," he explained.

According to Grey, persons did not willingly remain in the barracks. They were forced to do so as a result of the poverty that existed among sugar workers.

"It is no fault of the sugar workers that they don't have anywhere of their own but is because of the poverty," he said.

Last week Member of Parliament for Eastern St Thomas Dr Fenton Ferguson said Ivan scheme will be demolished after the residents are relocated so that other persons do not go to squat under those unhygienic conditions.

According to Ferguson, a similar situation should happen at the Barracks.

Explaining the residents good fortunate in getting their own home, Ferguson explained that the EU, as part of its response, took the decision to do certain things for sugar workers.

"It was not just housing but development in sports field, expansion of education, rural electrification all in sugar belt areas," he said, adding, "it is geared towards social and infrastructural development.

The market value for one of the units, Ferguson said is in the region of $7 million even as he pointed out that the finish and quality of the units are superior to what has obtained in the past.

The hope, he said, is to be able to construct Phase 11 of the project.

"I would love to bring in to the scheme a mix of young professionals such as teachers and nurses and so on and given that we have the health centre of excellence if you want to retain staff you need to have housing available in the area," he said.

Meanwhile, Minister with responsibility for Housing Dr Morais Guy who recently toured the site expressed satisfaction with the quality of houses being built.

"It is something I can look at to craft a policy which could be replicated in other areas of Jamaica," he said.

"Those once living in Barracks who have worked in sugar we can give them a sense that they had contributed to development of this country," he said.

Minister of Labour Derrick Kellier, who has temporarily taken on the agriculture portfolio, said the programme was looking out for those vulnerable persons who have lived in Barracks all their lives.

"This is an example of co-operation of the international community working with us to help to take our people out of poverty, people who are the bottom of the scale.

He also lauded the contractors and project managers for moving as quickly as they did and for producing quality work.

But he charged the beneficiaries to ensure that the units are used for the intended purpose.

"Experience has shown where persons have been given this kind of support without understanding...so we are telling the beneficiaries this is for them and their family and not to be used for anything else," he said of the units which are expected to be handed over to 400 families in December.

Head of operations for the Delegation of the EU to Jamaica Jesus Orus Baguena told those in attendance at last year's contract signing that as Jamaica's sugar industry moves forward, those who toiled to develop the industry should not be left behind.

"The [sugar support] programme would have failed its objectives if it would not have catered to the needs of the people affected by the restructuring of the industry and shown gratitude to those whose work has allowed the sugar industry to thrive," Baguena said.

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