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Last rites-without the 'high priest'

August 03, 2003
By Raffique Shah

ON Friday last, Caroni (1975) Ltd ceased operating as this country's sole sugar company. Its 9,000 employees, all of whom seemed to have accepted Government's VSEP offer, received their last pay cheques and, according to the company's line minister, John Rahael, they will have been paid their terminal benefits over the weekend. Contrary to news reports and comments by some of the displaced workers, that did not signal the end of the sugar industry, at least not yet. But it was the end of an era, of a company that was part of our history, our culture, our national landscape, for generations.

Late that evening one of the ex-workers came to talk with me about anomalies in the final payments. Hundreds of the affected workers received less wages than were due to them, something that Caroni's management blamed on a "computer glitch". "Did your union officials not take up this matter with management?" I asked. "There were no executive members of the union there!" he replied, clearly exasperated. "What!" I bellowed. "Are you telling me that no union officer showed up to ensure that things went smoothly on this critical day?" He confirmed what the television news later did, and what left a bitter taste in the workers' mouths: the union that they helped build, that their fortnightly "dues" kept alive, had deserted them in their final hour of need.

It could not have been an oversight on the part of Rudy Indarsingh and his union's executive. They knew what was to have taken place that day, the mixture of emotions that could prevail, and the possibility of irregularities occurring. Although the union had initially opposed the VSEP to the extent that it took the matter to the Industrial Court, it later agreed with the initial offer made to its workers. In fact, Rudy went public recommending that the workers take up the VSEP. So there was no excuse for the executive officers absenting themselves from Caroni's head offices, from lending assistance to those whose "dues" had paid their salaries for so many years.

Worse in my view was the absence of Basdeo Panday who rode to political prominence on the backs of sugar workers. Surely, for a man who has been the "high priest" of these workers since 1973, he should have felt obligated to be there with them as they grappled with the trauma of separation. Maybe he was out of the country holidaying with his family-I don't know. But the workers certainly felt let down by his disinterest in their fate, many of them openly expressing such sentiments. Indeed his absence, and that of the union's executive officers, created a vacuum that Ramesh Maharaj felt bold enough to fill. That in itself was a hell of a thing, Ramesh being there to offer advice to the workers even as those who benefited from the latter's sweat absented themselves. Some may argue that the Team Unity leader was there out of sheer political opportunism. Matters not: the fact is he walked into Panday's turf and was brave enough to say what he had to.

If anything, Panday's absence and Ramesh's presence signalled a sign of the changing times in the "sugar belt". The former no longer reigns supreme in what was first his political cradle, later his footstool, and now his discarded garbage. When the VSEP issue first flared under the PNM government, he ranted and raved and called on his people to fight "the mother of all battles" against the PNM's plans for restructuring the company. That fizzled out like the proverbial you-know-what. Even so, though, his desertion of the people who once worshiped him exposed his political underbelly, his penchant for using people, abusing them, and finally spitting them out like dried plum seeds.

I shan't dwell on Panday's "neemakharaamism" here, though: I intend to deal with that soon, to show how the contraction of the sugar industry coincides with Panday's political demise, and why UNC supporters should be looking for a new party, not a new leader. For now, let me focus on Caroni and sugar. Mischief-makers are saying that I supported the VSEP because as leader of the cane farmers I stand to benefit. Since I am not involved in electoral politics and I am not a full-time officer in TICFA, I don't know how and where I'd make gains.

Truth is that the restructuring of the sugar industry was inevitable. When Panday was in government he tried to do it, but since his plans revolved around the survival of the union, not of the industry, it was doomed to be a non-starter. Towards the end of his term as Prime Minister, he even had a "total shutdown" plan presented to him, although it never reached Cabinet, so it was not approved. But there was no way Panday as PM, or any government that followed him, could allow Caroni to continue the way it had ever since its incorporation in 1975. It was a drain on the Treasury, and even in its proposed reconfiguration it may not survive.

The harsh reality is that we are a high-cost producer of a commodity that other countries can do at a fraction of what it costs us. There is no way we can compete with countries like Brazil or South Africa, where workers are happy with daily wages of US$2. In its new configuration, all the stakeholders will need to apply themselves to lower costs and improved productivity. Cane farmers, for example, will need to increase their yields per hectare, their primary transport and harvesting costs, if they must benefit from being the sole growers of cane. And the millers must improve their extraction of sugar, which would only come about through factory efficiency and worker productivity. We must look beyond the raw sugar market we have depended upon for eons, since those markets will soon become inaccessible to us. Moreover, we need to utilise every part of the cane plant-the tops, the bagasse-and look at downstream industries.

If we are not visionary, if we resist change at the level of government and the stakeholders, then we do that to our peril. Scaling down the industry, even with strictures like purchasing farmers' canes by quality, would come to nought. Sugar that was sweet in our mouths for so many years, could turn sour in our "bam-bams" before we have time to digest the superficial changes that are underway. We'll pay a heavy price for our collective stupidity, and for blindly following the blind, as sugar workers found out last Friday.