Sugar impasse threatens sector's recovery

Sugar impasse threatens sector's recovery

BY BALFORD HENRY Observer Senior Reporter

Monday, August 19, 2013

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THE Ministry of Labour and Social Security (MLSS) is to make a last-ditch effort today to resolve the impasse at the Pan Caribbean Sugar Company (PCSC) factories, which is threatening the 2013/2014 sugar crop.

Following another abortive attempt on Wednesday to resolve the dispute, triggered by the removal of 132 security guards from their positions, the ministry asked the unions representing the sugar workers to offer proposals towards ending the dispute for discussion at today's meeting.

The three unions — the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), the University and Allied Workers Union (UAWU) and the National Workers Union (NWU) — drafted eight proposals, which have been forwarded to the ministry and are expected to form the basis of today's talks, but they are not very hopeful of a settlement.

According to BITU Deputy Island Supervisor Harold Brown the unions feel that the issues could be resolved within four weeks. However, with Pan Caribbean laying off the guards last Thursday, and indicating that their positions are likely to be made redundant by month-end, the situation has become more complicated.

"We cannot have a resolution within four weeks, if they refuse to withdraw the lay — off notices. We suggested that they retain at least 70 per cent of the guards, but that was also rejected, and we couldn't agree to make
all the guards redundant by month-end," Brown explained.

In their proposals, which were sent to the MLSS on Friday, the unions stated that they are committed to working with all the stakeholders to have the issue settled by September 18, to ensure sugar cane cultivation and the cleaning up and repair of factory equipment in time for the start of the crop in late November at the three plants - Bernard Lodge,
St Catherine, Monymusk, Clarendon and Frome, Westmoreland.

However, private security firm Quest Security has been providing temporary security at the plants since the guards were sent on "discretionary" leave on July 21. The company plans to make that arrangement permanent by September.

The unions say the lay-off of the guards has brought to over 400 the number of workers who have lost employment with Pan Caribbean since its parent company, COMPLANT, took over the bankrupt estates/factories from the Government-owned Sugar Company of Jamaica (SCJ) in August, 2011 and appointed management sent from China.

There has been speculation that the security guards' removal has been linked to an alleged disappearance of some 26 bearings, used in sugar processing equipment, from the Monymusk factory since July. However, Pan Caribbean has insisted that the dislocations are part of a restructuring exercise, which includes the acquisition of automated equipment and the need to cut costs.

In their proposals to the Ministry, the unions also demanded that Pan Caribbean provide them with "a summary of proven instances of security breaches at Frome, Monymusk and Bernard Lodge, that were attributed to Pan Caribbean security guards between August 15, 2011 and July 21, 2013.

They also requested a progress report on both the internal and external investigations into the alleged missing spare parts at Monymusk Sugar Factory in June 2013.

The proposals also asked Pan Caribbean to provide a listing of present security guards who have been found guilty of security breaches through the established grievance procedure mechanism, since August 15, 2013; indicate its manning requirement for unarmed security guards at all three divisions; and, that all unarmed security guards positions, currently being occupied under the interim contract Quest Security Company, should be returned to the unarmed Pan Caribbean security guards.

The unions are also insisting that the company withdraw the notice to lay off the guards while the parties are in discussions at the Ministry.

The security guards have been receiving some support from unionised workers employed in other areas of production. This has threatened the spraying and weeding of canes on the estates, and the cleaning and repairing of equipment at the factories. The ministry has met with the parties at its North Street office in Kingston on several occasions, but has failed to resolve them so far.

China National Complete Plant Import Export Corporation (COMPLANT), a subsidiary of Hua Lien International, owns Pan Caribbean Sugar Company, which was formed to operate the factories divested by the Government in 2011 for US$9 million, plus injection of over US$160 million to increase raw sugar production up to 150,000 tonnes by 2014.

However, Minister of Agriculture, Roger Clarke, says that production at its three factories, which constitute 70 per cent of local sugar production, is falling.

The Minister said that the projected production of local sugar this year is 125,000 tonnes, compared with 131,589 last year. He said that last year the COMPLANT factories produced 65,000 tonnes of sugar, compared to this year's projection for 54,000 tonnes.

"Clearly, there are some deficiencies within the COMPLANT operations," Clarke said. He has promised the Government's support in assisting Pan Caribbean to reach its target.

Brown says that the unions are also hoping for an expeditious end to the impasse, to ensure that the factories can get back on course very soon and be able to reach their target by next year.

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