JTC Report: Massive blow to sugar industry workers

Despite all the support extended by succeeding governments to the sugar industry, the latter has consistently failed to reciprocate

If what have been reported in the press and been commented upon by trade unionists, civil society activists and former Agriculture minister Arvin Boolell, this week, in relation to a series of recommendations that would have been made by a “Joint Technical Committee” (JTC) in connection with the sugar industry in view of the forthcoming budgetary proposals of the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance are factual, then one could well and legitimately sympathise with the position taken by Ashok Subron thereon. Mr Subron has qualified the JTC’s recommendations as reminiscent of the “mentalité esclavagiste” of Corporate Sugar (which goes back to the days of Indenture), and he has also expressed astonishment that government officials should have participated in this highly controversial handiwork.

Mr Subron is absolutely right because the JTC’s recommendations make for a shocking reading. He is also right to have questioned the brief of these government officials, though he has fallen short of requesting that they be named. But what is more condemnable is the Government’s willingness to participate in a technical committee which, as rightly pointed out by Arvin Boolell, is corporate centric. It chose not to co-opt representatives of workers of the industry to discuss matters of direct import to the professional lives of the industry’s labourers and artisans. One could presume that the opposites of the government’s representatives came from Business Mauritius – the new “sirdars” on the block, who argued the case for Corporate Sugar collectively – unlike what happens when salary negotiations are conducted with individual sugar estates since what looks like the convenient dismantling of the Mauritius Sugar Producers Association in 2015. When it comes to extract fiscal incentives and other remissions from government, Corporate Sugar’s voice is heard through the mouthpiece of Business Mauritius; whereas in the case of salary and employment conditions, the trade unions have to acquiesce to sectoral negotiations with individual sugar companies. Our “caring” governments appear to have no qualms about this state of affairs.

A ministerial committee under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister is to look into the JTC’s report, and decide on the way forward, including the grant of a financial package to the tune of Rs 1.3 billion against, on the other hand, the elimination of a number of acquired rights for sugar industry workers. Former minister Boolell’s comments appear on Page 3 of today’s issue of this paper, but it is necessary that some of the recommendations of the JTC that could come under a ‘Bitter Sugar’ sub-heading be recorded.

They are (1) review (or abolition) of Double Payment Compensation to workers; (2) 40% reduction of the industry’s labour force; (3) repeal of VRS 2 and Employment Retirement Scheme, including the allocation of a plot of land upon retirement of sugar industry workers; (4) review of employer’s contribution to NPS from 10.5% to 6%; (5) amendment of Sugar Industry (Agricultural) Remuneration Order such that Sundays be considered a normal working; (6) limitation of workers’ strikes to two days through a modification of the Employment Relations Act, and subsequent arbitration by the Employment Relations Tribunal, etc. ‘Sweet Sugar’ recommendations refer to VAT exemption for the purpose of land conversion, and grant of financial assistance to the cane industry from funds collected as ‘Maurice Ile Durable’ levy as well as an increase in the rate paid to the sugar industry for electricity produced by sugar factories.

Need government and Corporate Sugar be reminded that when the commonwealth Sugar Preference came to an end in 1974 with Britain’s accession to the Treaty of Rome, our politicians negotiated the Lome convention to create the necessary opening and privileged access principally for our sugar to the European market? And that it is as a result of these negotiations that the sugar sector kept benefiting from a guaranteed export quota in the European Union at much above world market prices?

For years, succeeding governments have given a series of concessions to the sugar sector. These range from the elimination of the sugar export duty, that was intended to recoup for general economic development a small part of the political price obtained for sugar under Lome, to cheap loans granted by the Bank of Mauritius for the modernisation of the sector whereas it is not the central bank’s vocation to lend to the private sector. Did the sugar sector reciprocate equitably by generating more employment and/or output?

Quite the contrary. Workers were laid off under the Voluntary Retirement Scheme and also under the Early Retirement Scheme. Total annual sugar production has gone on shrinking. Corporate Sugar went into energy production, with only a handful of investors taking hold of this new line to the exclusion of the numerous other stakeholders of the sugar industry, through negotiations frozen in cast iron contracts.

Thus, despite all the support extended by succeeding governments to the sugar industry, the latter has consistently failed to reciprocate in terms of higher levels of employment or total production, or a wider platform of shareholders in its new ventures as would have been compatible with a fair and equitable sharing of gains.

Relevant here are the views of Eric Guimbeau who in 2015 raised some extremely pertinent issues regarding the cane-sugar sector. To the effect that the latter was being increasingly deserted by a double movement: better lands of the oligarchy are being converted into high-value commercial, business and residential malls,  while marginal lands of small planters are being increasingly abandoned for want of any significant returns with the phasing out of EU preferential pricing and quotas.

To this day, regarding proceeds sharing, it is extremely difficult to get a clear flowchart of where the annual proceeds of Cane Industry (and any EU assistance funds) end up and what share millers, large planter-millers, large estate holders and small to medium planters receive. Similarly, as regards transparency, there have been numerous regular complaints that sugar revenues, marketing and sales figures are allegedly unreliable and veiled with opacity, as also about actual sales revenues of molasses

It has long been obvious that the benefits of cane-sugar, often shrouded in opacity, have remained skewed in favour of the privileged few. Their perpetuation is totally unacceptable and the JTC’s report makes a mockery of hard toil of the workers whose contribution to the generation of these benefits is being denied by the ridiculous so-called recommendations therein.

 


* Published in print edition on 1 June 2018

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