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Sugar unions say wage talks at 'crucial' stage

BY BALFORD HENRY Senior staff reporter balfordh@jamaicoabserver.com

Friday, February 21, 2014    

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THE unions representing sugar workers islandwide insist that next Thursday's ninth round of talks with the employers' Sugar Producers' Federation (SPF) will be crucial to settling a new labour agreement without causing any disruption in the sector.

This followed the parties' failure to significantly close the gap between the union's demands in their 27-point claim and the producers' offers.

"We expected that by now we would have been much closer to an agreement. The workers are extremely restive. We can't have these negotiations going on indefinitely, so next Thursday's meeting will be crucial," said Harold Brown, deputy island supervisor of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU).

Vice-President of the University and Allied Workers Union (UAWU) Clifton Grant said that he, too, was expecting some significant movements by next week, which would indicate that they are closing in on an agreement.

"The workers are getting restive, that's my feedback from the delegates. So, I believe that next week's meeting will be crucial," Grant pointed out.

The National Workers' Union (NWU) also represents a number of the sugar workers.

The unions' wage claim started at 20 per cent in the first year, and 20 per cent in the second year of a 24-month package. The Jamaica Observer understands that by last Monday's meeting at the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, the unions had reduced their claim to 15 per cent and 15 per cent (representing the first and second year), while the producers upped the ante from two per cent and one per cent to to six per cent and two per cent for the two periods.

However, the dispute is not limited to wages, as the unions are also seeking guaranteed pay for the workers during the out-of-crop season; a contributory pension scheme to replace the current low-paying non-contributory scheme; an improved health scheme; standardisation of rates of pay across the industry; and an increase in the end-of-crop bonus by 10 per cent this year and an additional 10 per cent next year.

The SPF is insisting that the industry stands to lose some $150 million this crop due to increased international competition. But the unions are insisting that they produce figures for both rum and sugar production to support the prediction.

There are more than 4,000 workers employed in the sugar industry. Chinese firm Pan Caribbean, which had withdrawn from the SPF last year, has now rejoined the producers' team. Pan Caribbean operates the island's major factories -- Frome in Westmoreland and Monymusk in Clarendon, as well as Bernard Lodge sugar estate in St Catherine.

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