Tough Times for Sugar, and Workers

June 1997

s the last loads of cane for the 1997 harvest roll into the sugar factory in Basseterre, the future of this mainstay of the St. Kitts economy remains in serious doubt.

While Minister of Agriculture Timothy Harris' declared that "a bonanza of 30,000 tons," will be produced this year, the state-owned industry faced increased labour unrest from Guyanese cane cutters, in addition to the grim economic picture which has haunted sugar for decades.

Since its election two years ago, the Labour administration has made revival of the sugar industry, its original base of support, a priority. Over $5 million has been invested in new equipment and human resource development, resulting in a whopping 50 percent increase in production over 1996.

The lingering frustrations of the Guyanese workers burst into public view during demonstrations in late May by over 50 workers, first at the offices of the St. Kitts Sugar Manufacturing Corporation (SSMC) and then at Government Headquarters.

The protesting workers, a small minority of the 600 migrant laborers, carried signs reading "We Want Justice" and "We Want to Go Home." The throng was met by SSMC and government officials who reassured them that their concerns would be addressed.

Interviews with workers reveal a wide range of complaints, all of which come down to a lack of respect by management. "We're treated like dirt," one worker told IPS, stamping his foot in the cane field for emphasis.

A group of workers gladly opened the doors to their camp near Cayon, shouting, "look at the conditions we have to live in!" Fourteen men were cramped into bunk beds in a room approximately fifteen feet square. Ironically, their housing is more crowded than in Her Majesty's Prison in Basseterre.

Other than the failure, at least in some cases, to "provide adequate and hygienic housing," SSMC appears to be living up to the provisions of its contract with the workers. Unfortunately, many of the workers put more faith in the words of the recruiters or what they heard from other workers than in the written contract.

"The recruiter deceived me," said one worker. He pointed to the housing conditions, amount of work and expected income as specific areas of misinformation. During the first three months of the harvest, many workers were occupied only three days per week. He had earned $1150 in 18 weeks in 1996, but a meagre $500 in the first 23 weeks this year.

One source within SSMC told IPS "in the past they were given alternate work in the sugar industry," but that practice has been discontinued, leading to idle time and much lower wages since the men are paid by the ton.

Others complained that their work was hampered by grassy fields, that proper transportation was not in place for them and that their cutting was being underweighed.

A worker who has come since 1992 said "this is the worst year," recalling that his first year there was a several day strike. Unless conditions improve, he won't be coming back next year.

Not all the Guyanese workers are complaining. Many of them have returned every year since Guyanese labourers were first recruited in 1991.

Some disgruntled workers believe that SSMC uses "divide and rule" tactics to keep them from uniting. They claim that workers who've been here before receive better housing, easier fields to cut and other preferential treatment.

One significant issue cited by workers, which is not mentioned in the contract, is that their passports were taken by SSMC when they came to St. Kitts. While government officials express no concerns with that practice, one prominent lawyer told IPS, "it wouldn't appear to me to be the ideal situation."

The workers haven't sought assistance from either the St. Kitts-Nevis Trades and Labour Union or the Labour Department, though both institutions are aware of the complaints. Labour Commissioner Clifford Thomas called SSMC's approach "quite enlightened." Union officials said that they don't have the resources to assist the Guyanese who are not their members.

Ironically, for over a century, Kittitians travelled to other Caribbean islands as migrant cane cutters. Some 350 sailed dangerous seas to Guyana in 1836, only two years after emancipation. In the first three decades of this century thousands of labourers sailed annually to the Dominican Republic to cut cane.

These workers escaped the oppressive plantation life here for better working conditions and wages on the larger islands. Perhaps the growing reluctance of Kittitians to cut cane--only 100 Kittitians did so this year--is a continuation of this same trend.

However, labour issues are only a small part of the major problems facing the sugar industry.

In a rather frank statement, SSMC Chairman Halva Hendrickson wrote recently, "without total commitment by all social partners, the future of the sugar industry is at best bleak."

Hendrickson outlined the staggering economic challenges facing the industry. St. Kitts sugar is highly subsidised, receiving an average of over twice the market price for sugar sold to the EEC and U.S. Even with this subsidy, production costs exceed income by over 25%, creating a huge deficit.

While SSMC is working to increase efficiency, it is difficult to imagine how they will be able to make the industry profitable given the external constraints. And, if they were to do so, it might mean "build the industry, kill the worker," in the words of one frustrated Guyanese cane cutter.