Failing sugar industry worries officials

But Shaw not ready to give up just yet

Senior staff reporter

Sunday, April 15, 2018

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LOCAL level negotiations between the Sugar Producers Federation (SPF), representing the sugar companies, and the trade unions representing workers in the industry are scheduled to continue next week Thursday, at the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, at a time when sugar is under pressure to survive.

The negotiations have begun in a context in which, despite the fact that the industry employs over 4,000 workers and remained a primary foreign exchange earner up to a decade ago, the future does not seem too bright.

But, newly appointed Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries, Audley Shaw, thinks he has a plan he has already been discussing with the stakeholders, which he thinks can rescue the industry.

The current situation is basically reflected in the fact that since the compensation negotiations began about three weeks ago, the producers have proposed a mere three per cent pay increase, while the trade unions are still insisting on a 30 per cent increase covering 2017/2019.

The last agreement expired on December 31 last year, and there are concerns that if the ministry is unable to conciliate an agreement in another few weeks there could be some problems in the industry. However, an agreement between them will very likely depend on how impressed the parties are with Shaw's proposals.

Already, there is some concern among the unions about the future of the industry, in general, and about the current crop in particular.

But Shaw has already started the process to, at least, save the current crop, especially at Monymusk Sugar Estate in Clarendon, by acquiring reapers to assist the small contractors who have taken over the growing and harvesting of cane by the factories over the past decade.

After his appointment as the minister responsible for agriculture, Shaw appointed a new board for the SCJ Holdings Limited, the wholly Government-owned company that operates specifically to support increased production and improvement in productivity of selected agricultural areas, using sugar lands.

SCJ Holings took over the sugar lands after COMPLANT International Sugar Industry Company Ltd of the Peoples' Republic of China (COMPLANT) entered into an agreement for lease and purchase of the remaining Government-owned assets at the Frome, Monymusk and Bernard Lodge Estates.

Since his appointment, Shaw has appointed Joseph Shoucair as the new CEO of the SCJ Holdings.

Shaw has already acquired a couple of reapers, including from the Everglades Farm in Trelwany, which has been focusing entirely on its rum production recently. But, several more are expected from the Frome factory in Westmoreland, as soon as they complete reaping their crop.

However, there are more questions than answers and as island supervisor of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), Hanif Brown, suggests: “There are quite a few issues that need to be addressed as soon as possible, if local sugar production is to continue at a worthwhile level.

Brown was particularly concerned about workers at the Golden Grove Sugar Factory in St Thomas who are being separated from their jobs. He explained that 47 of the approximately 400 workers at the factory have already been made redundant, and several more are expected to be separated during the year. There are also fears that other entities may have to lay off workers if sugar continues to slide.

“The people in St Thomas are not impressed with how Golden Grove is handling the situation,” Brown, a former Mayor of Morant Bay, the St Thomas parish capital, told the Jamaica Observer.

“They keep saying that they are seeking a buyer for the factory, but they are insisting that the new buyer should guarantee them a percentage of the production,” Brown noted.

He said that, in the meantime, the company has been making a number of changes because it has not been able to achieve more than a little over half its production targets.

Vice president of the other major trade union in the sugar industry, the University and Allied Workers Union's (UAWU) Clifton Grant sees the reduction of staff at Golden Grove, as evidence that, unlike former agriculture minister Karl Samuda's prediction in January that “the sugar sector is starting to reap rich dividends”, there is no turnaround.

“I am not seeing the turnaround that was promised. I am seeing a contraction of the industry, and it looks very challenging, based on what I am seeing,” he insisted.

He noted that the Government has already taken charge of the crop at Monymusk, while Everglades in Trelawny has not been producing sugar at either Hampden or Long Pond, but has been focusing on rum production, instead.

Grant is concerned that only one of the divested Government companies has been doing relatively well — Frome; while the historically privately-owned Appleton Estates in St Elizabeth and Worthy Park Estates in St Catherine, have been doing exceptionally well over the years.

But Shaw is confident that the changes he is making will rescue the industry. These include assisting Monymusk to take off all the cane that is produced by the small and medium size contractors in Clarendon who were contracted by COMPLANT.

He said that Monymusk's production could also be boosted by the redirection of cane from Worthy Park to boost Monymusk's production by some 2,000 tonnes and make it viable again.

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