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Sugar crop hinges on today's wage talks

BY BALFORD HENRY Observer senior reporter balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, March 17, 2014    

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The Sugar Producers Federation (SPF) and the three unions representing some 4,000 employees head back to the Ministry of Labour and Social Security this morning, hoping to sign off finally on issues which could make or break this year's sugar crop.

The parties were anxious to reach an agreement when they met at the ministry last Thursday and, after the meeting, improved offers covering wages and other basic line items in the unions' 27-point claim moved the parties much closer to a settlement. However, a number of sub-issues, including the demand by workers for a realignment of differentials affected by the recent increase in the national minimum wage, have stalled a possible settlement until today.

A source at the SPF told the Jamaica Observer that the sugar companies are anxious to get the issues settled today, in order to get on with the 2013/14 sugar crop, which has already been hampered by drought and late starts.

But spokesmen for the trade unions, including deputy island supervisor for the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), Harold Brown, say that they also want to see the crop accelerated, but insist that unless critical issues are addressed, there is always the danger of industrial action.

The National Workers Union (NWU) and the University and Allied Workers Union (UAWU) are the other two unions representing sugar workers.

"We have to maintain the differentials in wages daily rates which had existed prior to the new national minimum wage, because that increase has impacted the wages of other workers," Brown explained.

The Observer understands that although the difference is approximately $60 per day, realigning the rates could cost the companies much more over the two-year period, considering the number of workers affected.

Brown also confirmed that another outstanding priority issue is the unions' demand for the companies to do a job evaluation and reclassification exercise during the life of the new contract, which should also realign the wages of skilled workers in the industry.

The unions are also advocating standardised rates, improved health insurance scheme covering the employees and their families and a contributory pension plan, in the second year of the contract.

The SPF which represents the employers, upped the ante last Thursday, in terms of wages and basic allowances. However, the question remains: Were those offers enough to offset the fringe issues still dogging the negotiations?

"But, something will have to give on Monday," Brown insists, noting that there is restiveness in the industry, which led to an informal strike at the Golden Grove factory in St Thomas on Friday which, fortunately, lasted less than a day.

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