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Workers upbeat as new owners revamp Duckenfield

Published:Sunday | January 10, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Mark Titus, Business Reporter

Byron Thompson of Seprod Limited, 55 per cent owners of Duckenfield sugar factory. The factory is being rehabilitated and is expected to start operations under its new owners on January 12. - Winston Sill/Freelance Photographer

There is a new spirit of industry and anticipation at the Duckenfield sugar factory in St Thomas, which the Government sold last year to Seprod and Fred M. Jones Estate.

As the January 12 start-up date approaches, re-employed workers are busy outfitting the nearly 90-year-old sugar-producing facility with a raft of new machinery and equipment brought in by the new owners, who paid US$500,000 to acquire the assets and committed an initial US$5 million for repair and upgrade.

The consortium took possession in July.

The scene at Duckenfield recently is in stark contrast to our trip there a year ago, just days after the Government failed to pay over to the former state workers redundancy money that was overdue.

The failure to disburse the cash left the sugar workers in a quandary. Many said they were penniless for Christmas 2008 and were unable to meet their credit obligations to businesses in the area.

Financial ruin

Duckenfield Sugar Estate dates back to the early 1920s when operation began through capital provided by a group of British investors led by Lord Invernairn and the Duke of Atholl.

The factory was incorporated as a subsidiary of the state-owned National Sugar Company in 1978, after incurring losses of $102,894 two years earlier.

The estate has since been on the brink of financial ruin.

Government's budgetary support lifeline was yanked from the estate in March 1984 after a projection for losses of more than $123 million over the next three years.

A new group, Duckenfield Sugar Management Company Limited, was formed to manage the operations, with Dr Richard Jones appointed as head.

Sunday Business was unable to ascertain if this is the same Richard Jones who is now managing director of current 45 per cent stakeholder, FM Jones Estate.

Operation under government ownership experienced limited success over the years, registering losses from crop to crop, a situation which has been blamed on inefficient management over the years.

Byron Thompson, chief executive officer and managing director of the majority owner, Seprod Group of Companies, which holds 55 per cent of the venture through a newly created subsidiary, Golden Grove Sugar Company, told Sunday Business that priority attention would be given to the efficient running of the sugar mill and proper cane cultivation to get good cane yield.

"What we will work towards is to maximise output of the plant," Thompson said.

The busy workers, comprising villagers from the area, seem to have caught the vision of the consortium. During our recent visit, there was no sign of the self-proclaimed factory engineer who goes by the alias Major Gun, who, last year threatened to lead marches and riots reminiscent of now National Hero, Paul Bogle, who led the 1865 Morant Bay uprising against poor working conditions and other perceived injustices.

From all indications, the new owners have kept their word and re-engaged all but one of the 70 workers.

"The workers are working proper and after the place finish, more people are going to get work, so you see the Seprod company, they mean business," said Frederick Bailey, a guard at the property.

"I began working here as a cane cutter over 22 years ago, but this year is the best I have seen this factory. To how Seprod and Mr Jones going about their business, we should yield about 25 tons or more by 2012-2013."

20,000-tonne target

The Seprod boss was more cautious, and has set the target at 20,000 tonnes of sugar per crop.

The Duckenfield property has between 10 and 12 hectares of land and the partners have leased another 1,551 hectares at US$53 per hectare per year.

Registration for field workers began last week and Calvin Thompson, a cane cutter who has been working at the facility since 1989, was among them.

"When Government had it, I use to get $160 per tonne, and I would cut about 20 tonnes of cane for the week," he told the Financial Gleaner.

"I am looking to get about $180 this time round."

While Sunday Business was not allowed into the work area, Bailey, the guard, was earnest in his commentary on the upgrading work.

"Big man, we get nuff parts, nuff equipment, and there will be bus to carry workers," the guard boasted.

Among the improvements is the removal of old machinery from the factory yard, upgrading work on cane-yard equipment, and a gantry crane andnew scale installed.

Milling equipment in the factory, including the broilers and processing equipment, is also said to have been overhauled.

The number of baskets used to cure the sweetener has been increased from one to four.

"We are going to work with these men (the new owners), and we just want to see how the first year is going to work out, but I am telling you, this is good," offered Bailey.

Like other sugar-dependent villages, businesses in Duckenfield and the adjoining communities depend heavily on factory workers for sales.

"Is on the estate most of the people here work. It is how we send our children to school. So when they closed down, it affected a lot of persons, including business operators, who depend mainly on trade from the workers," said shop operator Roy Taylor.

"If the workers don't buy, we can't sell. If we don't sell, we can't go to (Morant) Bay to buy goods, and if we not going to Bay, the taxis can't hustle."


A section of the Duckenfield sugar estate in St Thomas. - Photos by Mark Titus