June 29, 2001
By Raffique Shah
(Delivered on June 10th at the formal opening of the new TICFA Head Office,
#10 Naparima-Mayaro Road, Cocoyea Village, San Fernando)
Hon. Trevor Sudama, Minister of Food Production, other distinguished guests, cane farmers. I thank all of you who have taken time from your regular Sunday activities to join with the Management Committee and members of TICFA in marking this important occasion.
Today, we take one small step forward, although, unlike the astronauts who first landed on the moon many years ago, and regrettably so, it is no great leap for cane farmers. The best we can say is that we have just emerged from a long, dark tunnel of uninterrupted struggle for survival and this building represents the first ray of light that we have seen in 28 years of struggle.
Those who are unaware of the trials and tribulations that members of this organisation, and its predecessor unions (ICFTU and NFWU) might think we have much to celebrate. Yes, cane farmers are happy when they see what we have been able to do within 2 1/2 years of assuming control of TICFA through democratic elections. But without obstacles placed in our path by those who wield power, and by the many opportunists who have come forward from time to time, their only aim being to exploit farmers for their financial or political gains, we might have been much better off today.
There are many ordinary people who have stuck with us through these long years of struggle for land, bread and justice. Most of them are farmers who cannot read or write, but who know injustice when they see it. They are the people-some now deceased-who braved batons and bullets, imprisonment and state violence, all in the interest of securing a better day for cane farmers. Not many of the younger ones will recall that when we started out in 1973, the price for a tonne of canes was $9. Few will recall our first cry, "a cent a pound", meaning $22.40 a ton. How many remember that 1st backpay back in 1974 when stores in places like Princes Town and Penal were cleaned out, quite literally? Farmers who, until then, had slept on crocus bags or fibre matresses, bought proper beds, and stoves replaced "chulhas". In the ensuing years,
as we fought for fair prices for our produce, entire farmers' communities changed. Districts like Barrackpore, Lengua, Penal Rock Road, Mohess Road and many others were mere rural villages in every sense of the word. Today, most of them are small towns in their own right. And we who engaged in struggle with them can take some credit for the advancement of these districts.
* But we weren't alone in this struggle. Which is why you see present here today representatives of the different religious groups, officers of fraternal trade unions who struggled alongside us, and some of the politicians who have identified with us, who understand the plight of the poor. I regret, for example, that Rev Idris Hamid, long deceased, is not with us to share this moment. Lennox Pierre and George Weekes, George Sammy and Winston Leonard-there are so many who would have been proud of us today, but who, regrettably, have passed on. But there are also others, alive and kicking, who must share our joy: Joe Young and Clive Nunez who allowed us to use TIWU's Coffee Street office for decades; Errol McLeod, Doodnath Maharaj and David Abdulah of the OWTU, a paternal union to the cane farmers; Allan Alexander and so many others. We thank you all, brothers and sisters, for having given so generously of your time, your expertise, your resources.
Like any general who abides by the conventions of warfare, I must also make mention of people we have battled against, but who nevertheless, made significant contributions to the farmers and the industry. In this regard, although in the early days of struggle we had come down hard on Norman Girwar, we recognise that not only was he knowledgeable in the sugar industry, but he also strove to build TICFA. The old TICFA House, a once proud edifice, was acquired under his leadership, and laid the basis for us being able to move on today. I pay tribute too, to men like Seepersad "Rato" Arjoonsingh, one-time chairman of TICFA, among others.
As we formally open our new head office today, I need to point out some of the problems we faced en route to this goal. After we had struggled for 25 years as ICFTU/NFWU, the Government decided in 1998 it wanted one cane farmers body. At the time there was NFWU, TCIFA 1 and TICFA II, with NFWU having the most members, and a major war erupting between the latter two. Legislation was accordingly amended and an open, one-farmer one-vote election held in December of that year. The government-appointed supervisor, retired Justice Jim Davis, oversaw the polling in which, despite the lies peddled on other platforms, we won by a secure majority. Thereafter, there was supposed to be only TICFA representing farmers. But within weeks, the vanquished Dave Persad formed another group (CFATT) and soon government ordered Caroni to deal with that body, too. Which tells me one thing: the Government did not expect my team to win, and it was prepared to bend the law in order to ensure there was no peace among farmers. Today, thanks to the Prime Minister's vengeful attitude towards me, there are about four farmers groups, something that exists in no other industry, and probably nowhere else in the world.
When we took office (if it could be thus described), we found a building that was but a shell of itself. There were no records of minutes or financial transactions. Worse for us, we discovered that TICFA owed close to $1 million, faced a number of garnishee orders in banks, and its sole asset, the Sutton Street property, was an eyesore that we wanted to run away from. My colleagues on the management committee and I worked feverishly for several months to have the VAT Board lift its
garnishee order so that, at least, we could bank a few dollars. We negotiated our way out of an $800,000 debt, reducing that to just under $300,000. We negotiated with the San Fernando City Council to have another $100,000 debt reduced to just over $50,000. Later, when we were in the process of selling the building, we discovered there was another $200,000 (plus interest) that TICFA had owed government since 1976/77. We pleaded with government to write off that debt, given that it was so old and that we were a service organisation. I know that Minister Sudama tried his best to convince his Cabinet colleagues to lend us a helping hand, but to no avail. We were forced to pay up-which I willingly did, because this is one trade union leader who will never beg or bow to any government! I need add that the same government wrote off a $4 million debt owed to it by another trade union. We, on the other hand, were marked, not for forgiveness, but for death. But we survived. And, having tapped all our talents, we were able to dispose of the derelict-looking TICFA House at a price no one thought it could fetch, $3 million. Through the initiative of Brother Rajaram, we sourced this building and that has brought us to today's opening ceremony.
So from a debt-ridden, non-functional state, in just over two years we have positioned TICFA to where today's balance sheet can be summarized as follows: (a) This building, valued at $1.5 million, was bought in cash. We spent around $100,000 doing minor renovations/additions and acquiring some office equipment. The two lower floors are rented out at $7,500 a month. (b) We have deposited in a high-interest account close to $1 million. (c) We are in the process of securing a lease on an acre of land in Ste Madeleine that we value at $300,000, and where we intend to construct, within the next 2 years, the New TICFA House. (d) We are expanding our membership base in order to improve our annual revenue from dues, and also to strengthen our position as the premier organised body in the industry. Not bad, climbing out from that dark hole of debt and total confusion.
But even as we take one step forward, there are threats to push us several steps backwards, even to annihilate us. I speak of course of the uncertain future of the sugar industry. Because however hard we struggle to build this organisation, if the industry is abandoned by government, then what's the use of owning valuable property? We have submitted to successive governments ways and means of extricating the industry of its perennial losses into a successful one. There will be need for major restructuring and fundamental changes in the way we have operated, if the industry is to become self-sustaining. Caroni will need to get out of the cane growing function and focus on making its factories and refinery more efficient. The growing of canes should be left to farmers, who should include a significant number of those workers who will necessarily be retrenched. The farmers themselves will need to become more efficient in their operations, improving on their yields per acre and on the quality of canes delivered to the factories. Their harvesting system
will have to change, lowering the cost of primary transport, i.e., from field to purchasing point. And direct delivery of canes to the factories will have to increase.
I sense, however, that there are people in authority who, having sucked the canes, tasted its sweetness in order to satisfy their desires, are now ready to spit out the waste. In other words, those who rose to prominence on the strength of sugar workers and cane farmers are now set to wipe out the economic base of these people without so much as consulting them. We note, for example, the divestment of the run distillery for a song--$35 million. A number of unions in the industry got together and offered government a higher figure than that. We were told that we did not bid when bids were invited. We hear talk of the factories being put on the auction block, and most of all, we see Caroni's vast landholdings dwindling before our eyes. Yet, the 5,000 acres that were promised to farmers some 15 years ago remain in Caroni's hands, and will most likely be gobbled up by land speculators.
So that even as we open the building, even as we look at the dawn of a new era for farmers, we do it against the background of a very dark cloud hanging over us. But, as our slogan says, 'We dare to struggle, We dare to win'. Those who aim to destroy the sugar industry rather than change its course will have to ride over TICFA-and that's a tall order. We shall fight them in the fields, we shall fight them in the factories, and we shall fight them on the streets, if it comes to that, in order to protect the livelihood of some 6,000 farmers and 8,000 sugar workers. We maintain that we are not against change: what we stand firmly against is any bid to close down the industry the way you close a two-by-two parlour.
I ask you to note, too, the divisiveness I referred to earlier among cane farmers, a state of tension that is being encouraged by the powers that be. I have warned them that if they are prepared to give de facto recognition to any group of twenty or so farmers who call themselves A-Fatt, B-Flat, or C-fart, then we have the capacity to form twenty such organisations and force Caroni to meet with all of them. We do not want such a war, not while we are trying to save the industry. But if they keep sniping at us through these pipsqueaks that pass themselves off as representatives of the farmers, we shall act. To the farmers here and those who could not attend this ceremony, I ask only one question: what do you think might have happened had Dave Persad or Tambie or Moses Charles or Dipchand Lall put their hands on the kind of money we did? Firstly, they would not have known how to extricate themselves from the dark debt hole. And if they did, they would never have been able to come and publicly state TICFA's financial position as I have done here today. Because if they fight and want to kill each other over a mere $60,000, we can only assume what they would have done with more money.
I shall close by thanking all those who helped us along the way, including officers of ICFTU and NFWU, almost all of whom served cane farmers without getting any remuneration. The public will be shocked to learn that as president of both organisations, I never got more than $1,000 a month stipend, and that only over the past five years or so. Now that we have a little more, I have ensured that those who serve get something more, although our officers remain the lowest paid in the trade union fraternity. I thank my colleagues on the management committee, and especially Brothers Ramgopaul, Rajaram and Latiff Mohammed, who worked side by side with me to bring us to this position today. I want, too, to pay special tribute to Doolin Nankissoor, who has served as secretary through thick and thin, through lean times and good times. I feel humbled when I see people like her giving her life to an organisation that has not been in a position to adequately pay her for her services. Today, we have chosen to add to the number of farmers we have honoured for selfless service to their fellow-farmers. There are only 30 such persons being honoured here. But since no other organisation even recognises these people, the salt of the earth, we shall. We intend to continue on an annual basis the process of honouring more of those who sacrificed and lent their support to our struggles.
My brothers and sisters, if I have painted a not-so-bright picture on what ought to be an auspicious occasion, it's because I am one who likes to face reality. All the "fight talk" you heard from me today, it's not that because I am a soldier, which I'll always be. I more than anyone else want peace in the sugar industry and peace in the country. I hope those who want to take us down another path take heed, they search their consciences, they acknowledge what cane farmers and sugar workers have done for them. If they do, then we can work in harmony to salvage the industry and to build a strong TICFA. If they don't, then heaven help them. We have proved that we can handle the most adverse of odds, from whatever government. We have been around since 1973, and we can truthfully say we have been in the "trenches". Governments have come and governments have gone. We have seen the mighty fall from their pedestals. And we are still here. In fact, we are stronger today, having battled governments and opposition forces that tried to destroy us. That is why I share the pride of those farmers who you see in their finest wear today, but who, tomorrow, will be more than ready to take up their cutlasses to defend their territory and their honour. To those whom the cap fits, pull the string. Or ready your rifles. We aren't about to roll over and die.
Let me thank you all for taking time to listen to our struggles and tribulations, to our achievements and the obstacles placed in our path. Rest assured that the new TICFA is here to stay. We shall rejoin our trade union comrades on Labour Day in Fyzabad when we shall march as a unit for the first time in more than 15 years. We invite you all to join with us. Long live the new TICFA! Long live the trade union movement! Dare to struggle! Dare to win!
Copyright © Raffique Shah