Wed | Aug 12, 2020

Job jitters - Sugar workers fear Appleton factory closure as company racks up losses

Published:Thursday | July 16, 2020 | 12:00 AMMark Titus/Gleaner Writer
Carrol Smith (left), his wife, Jennifer, and friend Bartley, all residents of Siloah, say Appleton Estate is the backbone of the economy of all the communities along the St Elizabeth sugar belt. The Smiths have been involved planting cane since 1961, a tradition in their family for generations.
Appleton Estate in St Elizabeth.
Appleton Estate in St Elizabeth.
The Reverend Lupert Mathison and wife, Margaret, of the Glad Tidings Church of the First Born have been serving the communities along the St Elizabeth sugar belt for approximately 30 years. They believe the closure of the Appleton sugar factory would spell devastation for many families who rely on the sugar industry to survive.

Communities dependent on the Appleton Estate Sugar Factory in Siloah, St Elizabeth, are facing an uncertain future following news that the J. Wray & Nephew Ltd- owned facility will end production of the sweetener because of heavy losses during the 2019-2020 crop year.

J. Wray & Nephew Ltd has pointed to sustained losses in sugar production and the impact of the global coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in the closure of bars and other routes-to-market, on its bottom line.

“The negative impact of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) on the commercial operations of J. Wray & Nephew Ltd, coupled with sustained losses from its sugar business, has forced the company into consultation about the future of the Appleton Sugar operations in St Elizabeth,” the company stated.

“The company is reporting significant losses from its 2020 cane and sugar production. This is not an anomaly as Appleton Estate has sustained heavy sugar losses for well over a decade.”

“The losses on sugar have become unsustainable, given the company’s tightening fiscal situation,” the rum producer added.

However, executives of the St Elizabeth chapter of the All Island Jamaica Cane Farmers Association (AIJCFA), who represent more than 300 suppliers of raw material to the factory, said that they were advised in a meeting on Wednesday that the factory was closing and that the company would subsidise the transportation of cane to Frome Estate in Westmoreland.

“They told us that the factory is closing, but while we are disappointed, we are glad that our cane can be sold elsewhere,” said a key executive who has been growing cane from the 1980s. “Our intention is to close, as of now ... were the exact words said to us.”

Appleton, Pan Caribbean Sugar Company, and Worthy Park Estate churned a combined 43,000 tonnes of the sweetener for the 2019-2020 sugar crop year, with the St Elizabeth-based factory contributing just over 11,000 tonnes.

“Everything mi have come from cane,” said 59-year-old Siloah resident Carrol Smith on Wednesday. “I make most o’ my money out of cane. It give me everything I have, and school mi five pickney dem, so if Appleton close now, is like my life support gone.”

“In fact, if Appleton close now, the community dead like dog,” said Smith, adding that her parents both worked cane to sustain their livelihood.

For the Reverend Lupert Mathison, pastor of the Glad Tidings Church of the First Born in Siloah, speculation has been swirling for several days and has sent jitters throughout the communities that he has been serving for three decades.

“If that should happen, it would be devastating for many families who are already finding it challenging to survive due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so we pray that it is not true,” he said.

However, Allan Rickards, the immediate past chairman of the AIJCFA, said the imminent closure was confirmed to him by a government official.

“The whole way Appleton Campari has gone about this has been very distasteful, and, in many ways, disrespectful to this country,” said Rickards. “Appleton is not a silo entity. Appleton is a national entity, and if the sugar part of its operation is to be closed under any circumstances, that is a matter that they ought to have discussed with the minister of agriculture.”

According to Rickards, the factory has struggled to return to its years of efficient production since it was ordered closed for environmental issues in 2016 and has been plagued by an abysmal conversion rate, moisture issues, a lower percentage extraction from sugar in the cane received, and challenges with boilers.

“Appleton has been disrespectful in this exercise, especially when you consider their importance to this country,” Rickards added.

The Gleaner also understands that the Sugar Industry Authority has since written to the company for clarification, while reminding it that the regulations require that a one-year notice be given before the closure of a factory.

In its press release issued on Wednesday, J. Wray & Nephew said it would commence consultation with unions and other stakeholders on the way forward.