Friday, May 7, 1999

Sugar Recovery Plans Present Political Challenge

Sugar Recovery Plans Present Political Challenge

Wesley Gibbings

PORT OF SPAIN, May 7 (IPS) - Long-time allies appear ready to square off over controversial plans to restructure the country's ailing sugar industry.

A "Transformation Imperative Plan" (TIP) to take the state-owned sugar company, Caroni Ltd, to the year 2003 is being heavily attacked by the leading trade union in the industry once led by Prime Minister Basdeo Panday.

President-General of the All Trinidad Sugar and General Workers Trade Union (ATSGWTU), Boysie More-Jones, is claiming there was "absolutely no consultation" on the plan though the board of the company is saying the TIP should not be treated as fait accompli.

Union advisor, Roodal Moonilal, a government Senator and Panday biographer, says any attempt to rationalise the operations of the company "can never come about without consultations".

Both sides have agreed to continue talking, but government minister Morgan Job let slip a few weeks ago while pinch-hitting for his agriculture colleague, Reeza Mohammed, that the Panday administration had, at last, bitten the political bullet on the issue.

The company employs 9,600 persons directly, 4,500 indirectly and buys sugar cane from 5,000 independent farmers who employ 15,000 persons from the Central Trinidad region that is said to be the political heart-land of the ruling United National Congress (UNC).

The UNC receives the bulk of its support from the East Indian farming communities of Central Trinidad. The ailing sugar industry has always been a combustible problem for successive administrations fearing the likely political backlash from voters in the area.

One estimate made by Caroni Ltd is that more than 220,000 persons will be affected by any move aimed at restructuring the company which has not made a profit since 1976.

But More-Jones sees a more ominous potential. He says the dismantling of Caroni will see a substantial reduction in the company's workforce liabilities in excess of 100 million dollars.

Now comes the TIP with an agenda that includes the formation of a holding company and a programme of "voluntary separation" that will affect more than 3,600 employees over a period of three years.

The union says it agrees that any programme of change will include layoffs, but it will not support the proposed plan which calls for drastic reductions over such a short period.

President of the Trinidad Islandwide Cane Farmers Association (TICFA), Raffique Shah says he would have supported the plan if it aimed at making independent farmers of sugar workers over a period of time.

"But we can't support this (Plan)", he says.

Shah, who once occupied the Opposition benches with Panday, says his organisation is joining hands with Caroni Ltd workers to oppose the TIP.

Strong language from the union, in conjunction with voices such as Shah's, may create its fair share of headaches for a ruling party that shares office space with the ATSGWTU.

Panday led that union between 1973 and 1995 when he eventually became head of government in a coalition deal with former Prime Minister Arthur Robinson. (END/1999)