Arvin Boolell, MP

The report is yet to be made public, but its findings are all over the place. It has provoked the wrath of workers and planters. The contents are yet to percolate through the wider public.

As a former Minister of Agriculture who had been in the vanguard of reform in the Sugar industry since 1996 I fully share the deep-seated concerns expressed by representatives of workers and planters of the sugar sector. The country should stand united in the name of social justice.

I had several meetings with representatives of planters and workers. I was appalled to learn that they were not convened to depone or submit memoranda in writing. They were totally ignored and the composition of the Joint Technical Committee was thoroughly corporate centric. The estimated benefits to producers with the implementation of a package of measures are largely detrimental to the small planters and with the stroke of the pen the Joint Technical Committee recommends the elimination of acquired rights of workers. Section 3.3 of Annex 2 of the report is adding insult to injury. If implemented, there will be descent into social chaos. I hope that the inter-ministerial committee to be chaired by the PM will set aside this report and recommend safeguarding the legitimate rights of workers.

Blueprint and VRS 2

Blueprint on Centralisation which was introduced in 1997 under Labour Government was the outcome of protracted discussions with the stakeholders. There was equitable allocation of resources. The trade-off was the result of better understanding of impending challenges and threats in the sugar industry. The offer to the workers in the factory was generous and legitimate. In 2007 SIE Act was amended and cane fields workers were given a better package than under VRS 1. Accompanying measures were disbursed upfront to meet the legitimate demands of all stakeholders in the process of restructuring the sugar cane industry. Even métayers were given security of Land tenure.

Benefits since Imperial days
Our friends from the Corporate sector have benefitted enormously since Imperial trade. They have used proceeds from sale of sugar and its by-products to diversify their portfolios and rightly so. Concessions have always been accompanied with obligations and rights ever since independence— hence the inevitable organic link between workers, planters and corporate partners. Under the present Government these links have been severed and it’s a one-way ticket for the Corporate Sector. If we compute all the fiscal incentives extended to the corporate sector they will laugh all the way to the bank. The facilities are at the expense of taxpayers even if the risk of underfunding of social services is becoming real.

No one way ticket
The burden of sacrifices has to be shared, more so, since the days of free lunch are over. It is not because sugar has slipped below the average cost of production that the Sugar Corporate has to depict an apocalyptic scenario. This is a country where there is rule of Law and decency and the rights of rent seekers or Landed Gentry have never been questioned. Thank God for it but it is not a passport to ask for more and more. It is a quest to be more imaginative, innovative and as entrepreneurs be true to themselves? You recall what Lady Thatcher told our friends from the private sector when one of them expressed dissatisfaction despite massive support extended to them by the then Labour Government in its endeavour to restructure the economy? I quote “Do you call yourself Private Sector?” Now I can understand why the Lady was not a proponent of making a U-turn.

Asset stripping
As to whether we subscribe to what Sir Gaëtan Duval used to say of the Corporate Sector is a matter that can be discussed. SGD, in a fit of fury, reminded us that the corporate sector like to cry over spilled milk. The lopsided JTC report highlights this “déjà vu, déjà entendu” phenomenon. There is no reason to complain and Corporate Sector can in fact showcase their success to others. They have used the proceeds of sale or the hiving off of assets to lower the company’s net debts. The sum total reveals net profits. According to an article which appeared in one of the dailies the overall profit of Alteo is sound.

No indifference
The Labour Party in Government or Opposition has never remained insensitive or indifferent to the interest of all stakeholders in the sugar cane industry. Equity is the key word. That’s why we never succumbed to those who impressed upon us to violently disrupt the system. We believe in wealth creation and social justice.
I would invite the PM to protect the acquired rights of workers of the sugar industry. Medine Sugar Estate will surely submit its application for closure of factory and laying off of a sizable number of field workers. Make sure that there is no going back on the undertakings given in the Blueprint for factory and Garage workers. The VRS2 Agreement to field workers is equally sacrosanct. As for the planters they don’t want any equity participation. They are legitimately asking what was spelt out in the MAAS ACTION PLAN (2006-2015) i.e. to be remunerated according to the value of their ‘STANDING CANE’ which they claim has a reference price of Rs 2500/ ton of sugarcane.

The Rescue Package
The Rs 1.3 billion package is taxpayers’ money. The details of the package are at table 10 of the report. Irrespective of the ultimate cost, let us use our judgement and, not our inclination. The history of sweat, tears and blood can never be wiped off.
In the spirit of social justice let us share the burden equitably and safeguard legitimate rights of all stakeholders. King Sugar is here to stay though it is no longer the mainstay of our Economy. We call it Asset stripping.