Never Ending Struggle for small sugarcane planters

Editorial

It seems to be a never-ending struggle for fairness and justice – one that’s been going on since the colonial days – with the then political leadership in the forefront, supported by small planters associations in the sugar sector. Today there’s the feeling of let-down – to say the least – by the leadership who owe their election to Parliament essentially by the very same planters groups. They seem to have completely forgotten their duty and responsibility to ensure fairness and an equitable sharing of the cake. Many of the present generation may not be aware of the hard battles fought against large sugar estate owners in the colonial days to give small planters and workers of the large sugar industry establishments their dues in the days when the economy was undiversified and sugar was the mainstay of the entire population’s well-being.

Today, sugar accounts for a much smaller part of the economy of Mauritius, both as regards its contribution to GDP and providing employment. Nevertheless, it continues to remain to this day a citadel of a particular mindset that has privileged the few against the many over so many decades. The recent stand-off between trade unions and representatives of the sugar industry is a replay of how Corporate Sugar has been allowed to hold sway over the whole sugar sector by having recourse to various stratagems at the expense of most of the other stakeholders – the small planters and the thousands of labourers and artisans.

The Mauritius Times has been instrumental in the 1960s to the establishment of the Balogh Commission, following grievances and allegations that were made then to the authorities. In the main, they were about allegations of cheating on the weights of cane delivered by small planters to the sugar mills and the allocation in all fairness to the small planters of the by-products of sugar. In June, this year we had taken issue in these columns with the recommendations of a “Joint Technical Committee”, regrouping officials of the Ministries of Agriculture and Finance respectively and representatives of Business Mauritius who argued the case for Corporate Sugar (readers may consult the JTC’s report on our website), while representatives of workers of the sugar industry were excluded from participation. Readers will recall that since 2015 with the dismantling of the Mauritius Sugar Producers Association in 2015, Corporate Sugar’s voice is heard through the mouthpiece of Business Mauritius when it comes to extract fiscal incentives and other remissions from government, whereas in the case of negotiations regarding salary and employment conditions, trade unions have to acquiesce to sectoral negotiations with individual sugar companies.

Some of the recommendations then listed out by the JTC are blatantly provocative: (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 day; (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. As for Corporate Sugar’s interests, the JTC made mention of requests for 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.

In the wake of the stand-off between the trade unions and Corporate Sugar, Cabinet decided to have a ministerial committee under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister 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. In this same issue, Pradeep Jeeha gives a harrowing account of some glaring facts. He says in as many words that ‘succeeding Governments are responsible for denying the planters the income streams arising from bagasse and molasses’.

He points out, for example, that the sugar barons ear Rs 4,500 per ton of cane compared to the meagre Rs 1,000/ ton cane only for the small planter, and how if the Mauritius Cane Industry Authority (MCIA) had ‘played its role as a strong regulator today every planter should have been receiving a CANE INCOME instead of a SUGAR INCOME’. In his well-documented article Pradeep Jeeha backed by facts and figures in tabular form, Pradeep Jeeha shows how the small planters get short-shrifted at every step and it is this ‘economic genocide’ which, among other things, is mainly responsible for them abandoning their sugar lands, because they are being denied the necessary financial resources to keep these lands going. The corporate are on a ball, exploiting resources which ought to have been equitably distributed to the small planters but are not.

This stand-off in the sugar sector is a stark reminder of the classic devices resorted to by Corporate Sugar to cutting itself a bigger piece of the pie. It uses its diversification to keep workers out of the enormous advantages being reaped from this diversification. It takes advantage of tax reliefs granted by taxpayers (i.e., the government) to flourish its highly profitable incursions into more lucrative businesses like energy production under cast-iron contracts conceded by governments, but it chooses to refuse even a dialogue with workers’ representatives collectively, but only sectorally for its own advantage – and the Government choosing not to arbitrate but instead grants Rs 1.4 billion, with the Minister of Agriculture going on air ‘to boast that this package was in favour of the small planters without disclosing its full details’, according to Pradeep Jeeha.

This mindset has prevailed all along since the days sugar production has been taking place in the country. It is enduring in a different shade to this day. The number of workers involved in the sugar sector may have diminished today just as the key role the industry has played dominantly in the economy. The issues and the artifice employed to keep down workers and small planters are no different from those employed historically. The road continues to be rough for numerous generations engaged with the sugar industry, for recent events show that nothing has really changed: a bag of stratagems is always available to Corporate Sugar to keep to the strict minimum whatever “concessions” it may be forced to make to the others. Was it in vain that so many generations past have struggled for so long – what with the workers and small planters being betrayed to remain in as weak a position as possible?


* Published in print edition on 12 October 2018

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