Sugar Workers can turn around Industry

Sugar Workers can turn around Industry

In country after country, sugar production in the hands of private cane farmers has shown to be very profitable. It has been so demonstrated in India, Guyana, Trinidad, and in several African and Asian countries, etc.

My father and other private cane farmers had high productivity, though flooding and drought were serious challenges,  because they were motivated to work hard as all the produce belonged to them and not the state. My father and others also grew rice. So I am familiar with both industries as my brothers, sisters and I assisted in the family cultivation. The farmers moved out of cane and rice only after Burnham cheated them of prices and refused to provide support against drought and floods. Burnham wanted them to fail to drive them out of Guyana.

His mission succeeded until the economy collapsed hurting Burnham's supporters and forcing his successor to beg the Indians to return to farming. Sugar workers can make cultivation profitable if they are in charge of owning and managing the industry. The sugar workers can transform sugar production if given ownership and minimal support and encouragement from the government, the new successors of Burnham.

As my Political Science professor on Soviet Union used to say, socialist workers will not go to the government farm at five in the morning to cultivate potatoes or milk the cow, and even when they showed up at the farm late they will not work efficiently. But they will tend to farm before five in the morning if they own the land and or the produce or the cow. That was amply demonstrated in Guyana and Trinidad where I did research on cane production during the 1980s and 1990. Private cane farming was more efficiently managed than state farming virtually everywhere in the Caribbean or around the globe. And this is so even when the state pours more money onto the land than the private farmers could afford.

In India, for example, where cane is privately produced, it is most profitable -- no part of the cane is wasted and every part of the cane brings in money. Billionaires have been created from cane farming. The sugar product alone results in a huge profit with all the other by products (including liquor, cardboard, stock feeds, energy, ethanol, etc) adding to profitability. Indian sugar companies and workers know how to maximize productivity; they are the experts in sugar production, but Guyana was not interested in Indian companies preferring Chinese instead. It is no wonder that several African, and even some Asian countries, where cultivation was losing money, have turned to Indian sugar companies and workers to manage or run and to work in their sugar industries. All of the Indian managed or Indian owned sugar companies in Africa and Asia have been running at a huge profit and the workers share in the profits; they get bonuses which serve as an incentive to maximize productivity. And off course, in India, where virtually all sugar cultivation is privately owned, the farmers have a high rate of return on their investment. The farmers don't mill their own cane selling it to factories for a profit. In Guyana and in Trinidad, private cane farming was profitable; government mismanagement and corruption undermined the industry in both countries. Politicians viewed the sugar industry as a cash cow to enrich themselves at the expense of workers. They hardly care for the workers. The Trinidad PNM government, for political reasons, closed down the industry. The same is being done in Guyana by the PNC led government perhaps with the intention of driving out the Indians.

But sugar does not have to be closed especially when tens of thousands will lose work with no alternative form of employment. Government is courting social disaster as I found in my research among sugar workers in Wales Estate (see my earlier article).

Sugar cultivation has shown to be profitable when in private hands while under state production it was losing money.

In Trinidad, myself and several others suggested that the 80K acres of land be distributed to the sugar workers for cooperative farming in cane or other agro products. But government (PNM and UNC) was not interested -- sugar workers were taken for a ride, only to be used to build political careers of self -seekers to enrich themselves. In 2001, Prime Minister Basdeo Panday (a man who built his career off the backs of sugar workers), moved to sell the sugar estate for about $6 million (TT) to his friend Lawrence Duprey (Clico). He did not want to give it to the workers. We joined the sugar workers in protest. The Attorney General Ramesh Maharaj refused to sign the documents authorizing the sale saying it reeked of corruption. Maharaj said the estate was worth a hundred times that amount and called for it to be offered to the workers as a co-operative at that bargain price. Panday said no. Maharaj was fired and replaced by Kamla Persaud Bissessar who would become Prime Minister almost a decade later. Maharaj and two other MPs, Trevor Sudama and Ralph Maraj, came out publicly in 2001 and said they will oppose the sugar industry sale in parliament. Before the sale document could be signed by the new AG, Panday unwisely dissolved the parliament and called elections which he lost never to lead a government again -- all because he did not want sugar workers to own the industry. A similar fate seems to have befallen the PPP. (Panday was advised not to call elections as my NACTA poll showed him heading to defeat).

In Guyana, Ravi Dev and a few of us recognized that sugar cultivation would not be profitable under state ownership especially that EU support was not guaranteed. We implored the PPP government to give parcels of the land to workers to form co-operatives which we surmised would be financially lucrative. Sugar workers would maximize production and the industry would be profitable. Ravi Dev carried the battle almost single handedly to sugar workers like Ramesh and Sudama did in Trinidad. But the PPP government, like the UNC government in Trinidad, both of which depended on sugar workers to get into and remain in office, was not interested in turning sugar workers growing into land owners. The PPP government did not want to create a new kulak class of workers, and Panday wanted Clico to be recipient of Caroni estate. Dev and others were lambasted similar to how Maharaj and Sudama were reviled even by the very sugar workers whose interests they championed.

Patrick Manning and the PNM government closed Caroni in 2002 rendering the workers jobless and for over a decade they were denied land promised to them under a severance package. It was Ramesh who went to court and successfully got the land for them although the workers remained ungrateful refusing to support him politically against Panday who did virtually nothing for them when he served as PM for six years.

And in Guyana, the coalition government has closed Wales and plans to shut down other estates. The workers are jobless and their families are suffering. This could have been avoided if the PPP government had simply listened to those of us who advocated for the sugar workers and who had foreseen what was going to happen to the sugar industry once PPP lost power. But the PPP said it would not lose power never accepting the workers would turn against it. The sugar workers, fed up of being abused, turned against the PPP and unwisely voted the PNC into office not expecting the PNC to put them out of work. But even if sugar workers had voted in unison for PPP and it had remained in office, sugar would not have been profitable as a state owned industry.

Sugar supports from the EU under the Lome Protocol had ended in 2015. Sugar production was losing money. The incentive to work efficiently and maximize productivity was/is missing among state workers. They would not put in their best performance for a socialist owned company especially when government was ill-treating them. Private ownership must be considered as an alternative to turn around the industry.

Government, therefore, should move to distribute the cane lands to the sugar workers to grow cane. Government can be the miller or even that aspect of production can be handed over to private management as some African and Asian countries have done. Indian companies are the best in the world to transform the sugar industry. Our estate land is ideally suited for cane; other crops may be difficult especially since the estate land culture has been cane. This does not mean other crops should be discouraged. But the infrastructure for cane is still there at Wales.

Government can start on an experimental basis with Wales Estate giving the land (10-15 acres) to the former sugar workers to form co-ops or individually to grow cane to feed a revived modernized mill. Since government wants to divest itself of sugar, the government can invite interested companies or investors to take over and run the closed mill. The prospective investors can also be offered lease land to grow cane; many jobs will be created for the surrounding unemployed. The industry will be turned around under this proposed scheme. In fact, this method is successfully utilized in India and several Asian countries where sugar cultivation is most profitable.