“All that the labourers and artisans have gained have been achieved thanks to relentless struggles and nothing more!”

Qs & Ans: Devanand Ramjuttun – Negotiator, SILU-JNP

‘What have the labourers and artisans and planters gained from the value addition in the cane industry?’

Devanand Ramjuttun knows the sugar sector very well for having been a long-time negotiator, as union leader, with the factory owners for improvements in the working conditions of his fellow workers, whose number has dwindled from 46,000 to 4500. With only 4 factories in operation, since the accent is now on the cane industry rather than the production of sugarcane – and sugarcane workers have not shared in the profits – , he believes that the temptation to resort to foreign labour should be resisted. Instead, government should step in to support the workers in their bid to obtain better terms and conditions to motivate them, especially since the after the dissolution of the MSPA such negotiations must now be done with individual factories.

Mauritius Times: What’s happening in the sugar sector for the Joint Negotiating Panel (JNP) comprising the Union of Artisans & Allied Workers of Cane Industry (UAAWCI), Sugar Industry Labourers Union (SILU), Artisans and General Workers Union (AGWU), Organisation pour L’Unité des Artisans (OUA) and Plantation Workers Union (PWU) to again have to alert public opinion about industrial relations in this sector?

Devanand Ramjuttun, SILU: First of all, let me tell you that all these unions were duly recognised by the Mauritius Sugar Producers Association (MSPA) which represented all the sugar companies. Negotiations were carried out between the MSPA and the unions at national level on the terms and conditions of work of labourers and artisans of the sugar industry. Three collective agreements were signed between the parties, i.e. the first in 1994 known as the ‘Protocole d’Accord’, the second and third in 2010 and 2012 respectively, and the last one in 2014.

After eight consecutive days of legal strike in the sugar industry, the last collective agreement was signed between the JNP and the MSPA on 28 November 2014 under the aegis of the then Minister of Labour, Hon Shakeel Mohamed. That agreement expired on 31 December 2017, and the new collective agreement should have been negotiated and become effective as from 1 January 2018. But unfortunately the MSPA was dissolved in 2015 and that rendered the tasks of the unions more difficult as we have to negotiate with each and every sugar company.

* We note from the notes of a meeting held under the joint chairmanship of Agro-Industry minister Seeruttun and Labour minister Callichurn, on Monday 23 Oct 2017, that Mr Jauffret (President, UAAWCI) laid emphasis on the fact that the “workers in the sugar industry were being ill-treated” and that “Government should find ways and means to encourage the remaining 4500 workers to stay in the sugar industry”. Has Government acted on its commitment taken during that same meeting “to ensure that there is no exploitation, with everyone benefitting from the same advantages”?

In fact, Ministers Seeruttun and Callichurn have not shown any sign of interest since the meeting and the remaining labourers and artisans of the sugar industry are being denied of their right to cane cutting and overtime during the crop season. The seasonal workers are being favoured with the cutting of canes and most of the work in the sugar factories is being contracted out. The seasonal/contractual workers left the sector with a good social package (VRS, ERS and Blue Print), but the remaining workers are being deprived of these same benefits on retirement although the unions have made several representations to the Ministers concerned.

* What do you gather from your interactions with the politicians in power and government officials as regards their personal commitment towards to the labour force in the sugar sector and the small planters community?

All the successive governments have made lots of concessions to the owners of the sugar companies in terms of exemptions on certain taxes, inter alia land conversion tax, morcellement tax, land property rights in order to allow them to expand and diversify their businesses – IRS, Smart Cities, etc., but paid the least attention to the grievances of labourers and artisans of the sugar/cane sector and the planters community.

* But as Hon M.K. Seeruttun stated “once again” during that same meeting, “the context of the sugar industry has changed over the years and is now operating in a free market with big competitors like Thailand, Brazil and India”, this would suggest that the Government has decided that it would henceforth let the free market decide rather than arbitrate in this matter as it was the case earlier. Is this what’s exactly happening?

Any argument in favour of the dynamics of the free market constitutes just one side of the coin; the other side of the coin is that the sugar industry has been transformed into the cane industry and its activities have been diversified with the production of energy and ethanol, the setting up of sugar refineries, production of special sugars. The value added sugars are highly appreciated on the international markets. It’s the corporate sector which has gained from the diversification of the sugar industry. What have the labourers and artisans and planters gained from the value addition in the cane industry?

* But the dynamics of the free market have to be reckoned with, and the productivity of the Mauritian sugar sector may not compare favourably with other sugar producers. Is that the case?

It is not denied that with the dismantling of all the safety nets and the Sugar Protocol, the Mauritian sugar sector has to become more competitive in the free market. But there’s also another reality: the sugar industry has diversified its activities into more profitable business sectors, which means it does not rely only on the production of sugar.

Remember that besides the centralization of sugar factories, bringing down the number to only 4 from the 21 in 1984, the labour force in the sugar industry has drastically declined from around 46,000 in 1985 to about 4500 presently. It is the same 4500-strong labour force that’s running the sugar industry whether in the fields or in factories, thereby decreasing significantly the operational costs of the industry. Any doubts about the labour force in this sector have to be brushed aside.

* To come to the erstwhile MSPA, how did the trade unions in the sugar sector react when its dissolution was announced and what course of action was envisaged?

We knew that sooner or later the MSPA would be dissolved as their first attempt was initiated in 2012 when the JNP reported a labour dispute on (a) the provision of a Monthly Pensionable Allowance of Rs 2,000, and (b) the setting up of Human Dignity Fund of 2% of net profit of the sugar companies. Earlier, that is since 2010, the MSPA wanted the trade unions to negotiate at enterprise level, but that resisted by the labourers and artisans of the sugar sector. Hence, the dissolution of the MSPA finally happened in 2015. That is why we sought the intervention of the Minister of Labour and that of the Minister of Agro-Industry & Food Security to at least have a common platform regrouping both parties — the employers as well as laboures and artisans – for negotiations on issues concerning salaries and conditions of work and that would be applicable at national level.

* The dissolution of the MSPA meant that the collective bargaining in the sugar sector would be a thing of the past, which is what seems to have compelled the JNP to open negotiations with each and every sugar company. Was there really no other choice?

The collective bargaining in the sugar sector at national level has been conducive to industrial peace in the sector by maintaining uniformity in terms of wages and conditions of employment in all the sugar companies. We appealed to the Ministers concerned in order to prevent the creation of a situation conducive to all sorts of discrimination against labourers and artisans of the sugar sector. But political will has been sorely lacking…

* The JNP has been saying that negotiations with individual sugar companies would lead to discrimination in salary scales among these different companies thereby affecting the lump sums of labourers and artisans on their retirement. And that this would go against ILO Conventions 100 (enshrined in our Employment Rights Act, Section 20) relating to ‘Equal Remuneration for Work of Equal Value’ and Convention 111 – ‘Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination’ respectively which Mauritius has ratified. If such is indeed the case, whose responsibility is it to contest the new arrangement of the sugar companies and in which forum should take place?

It is the sole responsibility of the Government to comply with the core ILO Conventions which it has ratified, otherwise it will amount to a gross violation of these same Conventions. Negotiations with individual sugar companies will definitely lead to glaring discriminations in the sector as the percentage of salary increase negotiated may differ from one sugar company to another; this will have a direct impact on the lump sums of labourers and artisans on their retirement and even on their gratuity at death.

* Mr Jauffret referred, during that meeting with Ministers Seeruttun and Callychurn in October 2017, to the remaining 4500 workers that should be “encouraged to stay in the sugar industry”. What happens next – when this mass of sugar industry workers go on retirement? Would trade unions be agreeable to the importation of foreign labour?

The sugar sector which we had known some 50-60 years ago is no longer the same today. There has been a great transformation over the years. Most of the sugarcane activities are highly mechanized and the remaining four sugar factories are being operated with a few skilled workers with the introduction of new technologies. There is a need for a continuous renewal of skilled labour in the sector with an attractive salary and better conditions of work.

The trade unions have vehemently opposed the importation of foreign labour to work in the sugar sector. One should not forget the atrocities that our forefathers had suffered during the colonial times who were brought to this island as slaves and indentured labourers!

* You have been actively involved in the sugar sector for years and you must have seen at close quarters the lives – professional and personal — led by those tens of thousands of labourers and artisans who have sustained our sugar cane industry. Would you say they have obtained a fair deal from the sugar companies and the respective governments in terms of pay, housing, access to land, etc? What about their social mobility?

The blunt fact is that the sugar sector has remained the backbone of our economy for more than a century, and on the strength of which most of the pillars of our economy have been developed. I have been negotiating for the sugar workers for many years now, and I can tell you that sugar workers have not to this day obtained a fair deal from the employers. All that the labourers and artisans have gained have been achieved thanks to relentless struggles and nothing more! Respective governments’ interventions had always been a last resort. The irony is that all the traditional political parties have emerged from the working class.

Labourers and the artisans of the sugar sector have had come down in the streets and had recourse to general strikes in 1937 in FUEL, in Belle Vue Harel in 1943 where Anjalay Coopen was shot dead. There have also been the strikes in 1971 and 1979, the threatened strikes of 2010 and 2012; and recently 8 days of general legal strike in 2014.

The two reforms introduced in the sugar sector – in 2001 and 2007 – had allowed the labourers to opt for a social package (cash and land compensations), the Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS); Early Retirement Scheme for non-agricultural workers and Blue Print for the artisans upon a closure of a sugar factory.

 


* Published in print edition on 18 May 2018

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