Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Time to bury King Sugar

Published:Sunday | April 10, 2016 | 4:00 AM

Jamaica's sugar industry is again claiming prominence for all the wrong reasons. This has been a recurring theme in the island's history since around 1509 when sugar cane was shipped from Haiti to Jamaica.

However, the industry did not really thrive until the 17th and 18th century. Under the British plantation system, the island became the major producer and leading exporter of sugar in the world. Many British families made fortunes and ascended to aristocracy on the backs of Jamaican labour spread over more than 300 years.

Production, over these many, many years, has been like a roller-coaster. In 1805, 101,194 tonnes were produced. It went to a low of 4,969 tonnes in 1913. It reached the all-time high of 514,825 tonnes after Jamaica's Independence in 1965. Since then, it averaged approximately 200,000 tonnes per year.

What has been the constant in recent times is the very high proportion of manual labour, as well as the vagaries of trade deals that have made it an unprofitable industry. We beg for money to adjust to the changing landscape.

 

Lands put into housing

 

Some of the best sugar lands have already been put into housing. The Government has acquired the industry, divested the industry, and in its most recent dispensation is about to reacquire sections of the industry. Not even the Chinese have been able to find sugar's pot of gold.

Isn't it time to cauterise this cancer for the national well-being? The country has lost billions of dollars. The unions agitate for this enormous workforce and the Government's treasury, at the insistence of stupid politicians, is used to maintain this relic of slavery.

There's free housing for sugar workers, an amenity not found in any other labour force. The history of Frome in 1938 haunts the nation.

The industry itself has faces who have been dominant in it for long periods. Derick Heaven, Allan Rickards and Karl James have been on the scene for so long, one must wonder whether there are any other voices.

The institutional structure of the sugar industry comprises the Ministry of Agriculture, the Sugar Industry Authority (SIA), created in the 1970s by the way of an amendment to the Sugar Control Act 1937, and the Jamaica Cane Products Sales Limited (JCPS), which was incorporated on March 23, 1986. This company is privately owned by the Sugar Manufacturing Corporation and the All-Island Cane Farmers Association. Mr Heaven and George Callaghan have been associated with the SIA; Mr Rickards with the All Island Cane Farmers Association; and Mr James with the JCPS.

The most recent musings in the industry can be viewed in two main themes: The Chinese, through Pan Caribbean Sugar Company, is in financial trouble and is seeking to cut its losses; and JCPS's intention to serve Seprod-owned sugar producer Golden Grove and state regulator, SIA, to recover losses incurred since Seprod began marketing its own sugar.

 

Caught in the middle

 

Here it is that once again the country is caught in the midst of sugar industry dealings and a divestment process spearheaded by Senator Aubyn Hill, who claims to have done nothing wrong. Golden Grove, as a private entity, invested its funds and sought to package its own sugar product, secure its own market, and assure the quality control and logistics to move its products up the value chain. Instead of being congratulated, Golden Grove is being served with 'demand letters' by the JCPS to thwart the efforts of a private company. What audacity?

The industry is heavily layered with all the features guaranteeing that loss after loss will accumulate, only to be paid by the taxpayers of Jamaica. The new minister provided a statement to Parliament that sought to limit government exposure. The people of Jamaica would do well to consign the sugar industry to the history books and heritage tours, and the appropriate homage paid by Tate & Lyle, et al.

 

Long-standing wish

 

Optimism drips from the lips of those who administer this industry. Realisation of maximum profit is just a long-standing wish. Jamaica can no longer afford to subsidise the industry and its bureaucratic appendages.

Stop telling us about the labour force of the industry being scattered in more than 30 constituencies and, therefore, contrive excuses to mollycoddle workers. There was a recent incident of massive company assets disappearing under the noses of security guards on duty. Every union sought to keep those allegedly involved on the payroll. Enough already!

How ironic that the first act of the newly elected Prosperity Government is to bail out sugar-industry losses, not the tax relief on which it campaigned and won the general election. The Chinese say Andrew Holness makes decisions quickly. What a first illustration! Privatise, in the truest sense, the sugar industry or find alternatives for the land in Clarendon. It could be Sea Island cotton, most suitable for mechanisation, and with high returns on the international market.

Deal with it now. No more taxpayers' money.

- Ronald Mason is an attorney-at-law and Supreme Court mediator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and nationsagenda@gmail.com.