Workers: The struggle is never-ending

Joint Technical Committee on Sugar

An established golden rule in democracies is that the acquired rights of workers must not be tampered with

An established golden rule in democracies, especially of the Westminster type that we have decided to model our own country on, is that the acquired rights of workers must not be tampered with. The history of the struggle to acquire these acquired rights is strewn with stories, episodes and incidents of confrontations that were often violent, even in the leading democracies such as the UK, the US, France. It pitched workers against the combined might of capitalism and its quite frequent bedfellow, the government that is supposed in the first place to be the arbiter that would ensure justice to the workers. This arrangement between government and capital in its modern and more potent form – the corporate – is now no secret in many a country, even the most advanced ones, and has even been labelled as incestuous.

One fundamental aspect of the acquired rights is the wage of workers, and has forever been a source of constant tension between employer and employee.

The inequality gap between these two categories has gone on increasing, leading Thomas Piketty to actually demarcate the superrich 1% and the simply rich 10% from the rest of the heap, at the bottom of which lay workers. Their bargaining position has in parallel weakened over the years, with the result that the rise in their wages has not been commensurate with the gains made by their employers. In fact, in many economies, the wages have remained stagnant, and this theme forms the subject of the page ‘Free Exchange’ in the issue of The Economist of June 2nd, 2018. Titled ‘Power is money’ its header reads: ‘Wage gains may prove elusive until workers enjoy a stronger bargaining position.’

The article notes that ‘addressing stagnant wages requires an understanding of the relationship between pay, productivity and power.’ Why stagnant wages? Because they have remained more or less so even in most rich countries where ‘real pay has grown by at most 1% per year, on average, since 2000.’ But for ‘low-wage workers the stagnation has been more severe and prolonged’ (italics added).

We are not aware of any similar analysis having been done for low-wage workers locally, but if this were done, we wouldn’t be surprised if the same picture were to emerge – that is, that after adjustment for inflation, the pay for workers at the bottom of the scale would be seen to have either remained stagnant or, for all we know, may even have regressed.

That is why the Joint Technical Committee Report on the sugar industry that was submitted last week has caused so much of concern to workers and those who defend them and have stood for their acquired rights. We have not heard any response from government, but in this paper ex-Minister of Agriculture Arvin Boolell has cried foul because for having been involved in negotiations with the sugar sector before he has a thorough knowledge of it, and made bold to state unequivocally, ‘with the stroke of a pen the JTC recommends the elimination of acquired rights of workers’!

He was ‘appalled’ that representatives of planters and workers ‘were not convened to depone or submit memoranda in writing. They were totally ignored and the composition of the JTC was thoroughly geared towards corporate interests’. He underlines that ‘the estimated benefits to producers with the implementation of a package of measures are largely to the detriment of small planters.’

How could workers have been so short-shrifted by the JTC? It is incomprehensible that such eminent people would dare to eliminate the acquired rights of cane and field workers! And as historian Sada Reddi pointed out in his interview to this paper last week, such a backward step is really dangerous and ominous, because of a possible ripple effect across the whole of the private sector as well as the public sector.

In another article again in this paper last week, former MP Pradeep Jeeha has made a comprehensive analysis of several broad technical and financial aspects of the sugar industry, citing solid sources to support his argument that tallies with that of Arvin Boolell, namely that the workers have been badly done with in the JTC Report. Like the workers’ unions and others supporting them, he has called for a total rejection of the recommendations of the JTC.

He has also proposed other recommendations, and they are worth reiterating for the attention of the government so that, even if the budget does not take into account their plight, it would be in government’s interest to take note and give due consideration to them – for the sake of cane and field workers who have been for so long the backbone of the sugar economy. And as the saying goes, literally broken their backs to keep it going through thick and thin.

What is the reason for wanting to perpetrate such an injustice on them? – is the question people are asking and which must be answered.

Here are the recommendations in Pradeep Jeeha’s paper:

  1. To set aside the report of the JTC outright.
  2. To implement the 35% Equity Participation agreed in 2007 (not through the SIT) of workers and small cane planters/metayers in the whole cane cluster by reviving the “Cane Democratisation Fund”.
  3. To revise the 78/22 apportionment ratio to 80/20. Planters should not be made to pay for the hidden costs of refinery and special sugars, electricity generation, molasses and bioethanol.
  4. To concentrate on the production, marketing and sale of special sugars which is 40%-85% more remunerative than White Refined Sugar (WRS)
  5. To revamp the MSS and review its composition and functioning in order to transform it into the Mauritius Cane Syndicate to cater for the promotion and sale of cane and all its by-products.
  6. To fix the bagasse income to its actual weight instead of tons sugar accrued basis. An initial price of Rs 1,500 per ton of bagasse will be a correct beginning provided that the small planter is paid in toto for his bagasse output and not on surplus bagasse only.
  7. The Bagasse Price Transfer Funds must be solely dedicated to the small planters.
  8. Molasses income of planters should be linked to the value added from conversion into rum and ethanol and the planters should also receive a fairer share from the direct export of molasses by Alcohol & Molasses Export Ltd (AMEL)
  9. Small planters must also receive their fair share of income from the sale of WRS actually distributed to millers only.
  10. Small planters must obtain their fair share of income from electricity generated from their bagasse.
  11. Workers’ acquired rights to pay, pensions and other accruing benefits must be protected at all costs including their pension rights and the right to strike. The recommendations of the JTC to lay off labour and to curtail the rights of sugar industry workers have to be strongly resisted and set aside.
  12. The appointment of an independent international team of experts (not Landell Mills of Ireland) to review the cane industry in a holistic manner and to ascertain the actual cost of production of Sugar, Ethanol, Electricity and Rum and other cane by products with a view to redistribute incomes generated from the cane Industry on a more transparent, just and equitable basis.
  13. Support institutions and regulators must effectively work in the interest of all the cane growers and not only the corporate sugar segment. The MCIA can start by controlling sugar, molasses and scums extraction countrywide, paying special attention to extraction rates and manipulations. It should also invest in cane loading equipments and facilitate transport of small cane growers’ cane to the mills on a competitive basis.

 


* Published in print edition on 14 June 2018

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