Mon | Dec 18, 2017

Carolyn Cooper | Dear George Hong Guo and Liu Chauyo

Published:Sunday | November 26, 2017 | 12:00 AM

On November 22, The Gleaner published an article by Mark Titus with this unsurprising headline: 'Chinese claim locals unwilling to cut cane at Frome Estate'. George, according to the report, you made the following statement, clearly expressing your frustration as deputy CEO of the Pan Caribbean Sugar Company (PCSC):

"'You will find a lot of the young generation sitting on the street with earphone music instead of doing some hard manual work, such as cutting cane. We now need to purchase two cane cutters at a cost of US$1 million, and this is certainly not ideal, especially when you are operating in a loss-making environment. While such equipment is necessary, because of the rainfall in the Frome area, we also need cane cutters, but can we force them to work? No, we cannot.'"

You're right, George. You cannot force people to work, especially as cane cutters. What you can do is try to understand why the 'young generation' doesn't want the job you're offering. This requires a history lesson. The ancestors of these young people were brought from the continent of Africa against their will. They were victims of human trafficking.

They were forced to work in cane fields for nothing! They had to plant, weed and cut cane. It was back-breaking labour then. It is back-breaking labour now. George and Liu, I don't know if either of you has ever tried to cut cane. I recommend that you try. More than once! Experience teaches wisdom.

Then, Liu, as PCSC boss, you are rightly concerned about cane fires that are deliberately set. You describe Jamaicans in this way, "When they are not happy, there is the tendency to sabotage whether public or private property, without considering that these properties are actually assets for Jamaica to help its economic development."

These properties are not assets for most Jamaicans. Certainly not for the youths who are unwilling to cut cane! The properties benefit the owners, especially when they can readily buy cheap local labour instead of having to purchase expensive machines. No Jamaican, old or young, wants to work for nothing. We've been there and done that. Next to nothing is just as undesirable, especially since slavery is supposed to be over.

 

BED WORK

 

I must admit that I have never tried to cut cane. Even though I enjoy eating cane, I don't even like to peel it. I've had accidents and got cut by a knife that slipped on the hard surface. So I wouldn't do well in the cane fields. Once upon a time, I used to think that if I happened to be enslaved on a Jamaican plantation, I would have tried to get a bed work.

Being a sex slave is certainly not an ideal occupation. But I imagined that it would be less terrible than working in the cane fields in the broiling sun. And then I read In Miserable Slavery, the diary of sadomasochistic Thomas Thistlewood who came to Jamaica in 1750 to work as an overseer. His explicit diary casually documents his brutal exploits with enslaved women. I've decided that cutting cane is better, after all, than being cut by cane.

And cutting cane wasn't the worst of it on the sugar estates. There was the boiler house, which was a very dangerous place. Limbs could get caught in the machinery. In fact, there was a specialist job that was particularly gruesome. A man with a machete stood at the ready to cut off any limb that got caught. If it was not detached, the whole body would fall into the vat and be boiled to nothing.

 

'DESPERATE MEASURES'

 

In his analysis of the dynamics of capitalism, Karl Marx recounts a November 1857 article in The Times that documents attitudes to work after Emancipation: "The Quashees (the free blacks of Jamaica) content themselves with producing only what is necessary for their own consumption, and, alongside this 'use value' regard loafing (indulgence and idleness) as the real luxury good." If "earphone music" had been available then, the Quashees would certainly have enjoyed it.

George and Liu, you also you need to understand the particular history of Frome Estate. It was established in the middle of the17th century and was a very profitable sugar cane plantation. In 1937, the British company Tate & Lyle acquired 16 estates in Westmoreland and Hanover and closed the small factories, concentrating production at Frome. Many people lost their jobs.

In addition, lots of unemployed people went to Frome looking for work during the construction of the new factory. Not everybody wanted the luxury of idleness. Riots broke out in 1938. George Padmore, the great pan-Africanist scholar from Trinidad, described the mood of the angry crowds at the Frome Estate: "Hungry people are driven to desperate measures, and the suppressed have nothing to lose but their servitude."

George and Liu, I don't suppose the Government of Jamaica told you all of this history when you were buying the estate. Young people in Jamaica are simply not prepared to do "hard manual labour". You have to invest in expensive machinery. Or import Chinese workers to cut cane!

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.