Blog: Strike – No Solution
After the political turmoil, the MMM-MSM remake being remade, government firmly saddled to comfortably govern the country till 2015, electoral reforms being postponed sine die, the age-old conflict between the workers of the sugar industry and the Mauritius Sugar Producers Association has come to the surface.
The MSPA has always been the negotiating party on behalf of sugar producers. They have never willingly given any benefit to the workers unless they have been forced to do so by law or through the pressure coming from government. They know their strength. They are organized. They have money power. They can only be pressurized to a certain extent. They always bargain hard. Whatever concession they give, they make sure that they get at least ten fold back, either through tax concessions or other privileges.
MSPA’s stand has been, and they have always said so, that the industry cannot afford to give in to the demands of the workers. Supported by accountants, lawyers, advisors, facts and figures, they always get their way. Without being able to afford to pay for the increase in wages to the workers, today they control all sectors of the economy - sugar, new cane industry energy, tourism, banking, insurance, shopping malls, trade, name it, they own everything. We should not commit the mistake of underestimating their real power. No party or government has been able to take on them head on.
It was SSR and Labour government which had negotiated the sugar protocol with Europe giving us a guaranteed market and a guaranteed price of sugar. Our prosperity and development was based on that agreement. Government had imposed a tax on the export of sugar to finance the development projects. It was the political price paid by the industry for the political price negotiated by the government for sugar. That tax is gone now.
With the guaranteed price of sugar being phased out, government has successfully negotiated with the EU funds to modernize the industry and turn it into a cane industry. From 21 sugar factories today there are only four. Milling and sugar lands have been separated. The owners have invested in power production with a guaranteed remunerative price for electricity in a power purchasing agreement deal with CEB. The voluntary requirement scheme has been successfully implemented, thus reducing the workforce from 55,000 to 5,000.
All the lands of the sugar estates are being derocked and being prepared for mechanical harvesting. All the byproducts of sugar will be used for ethanol, spirit and energy production. The MSPA should be praised and congratulated for using the funds available from the EU diligently. But what about the other stakeholders, the planters and the workers?
The small planters are still struggling to survive. They are abandoning their fields. Their lands are not being derocked for mechanical harvesting.
The demands of the workers are based on the assumption that they should have a fair share of the sacrifices and hard work they have put in for transforming the industry. That is why they are insisting that the MSPA continues to be the negotiating partner. The MSPA wishes that now that the cane industry is different from the sugar industry, it is preferable to negotiate with each sector. All sectors are not profitable. At first sight the proposal seems to be reasonable.
But are we aware that all sugar producers receive the same price for a ton of sugar whether the producer is efficient or not. It is the sugar syndicate which gives an average price for the sugar produced in any factory area and sold at different prices in different markets. It was on this principle that the average wage and salaries for workers were negotiated and fixed often with the help of government.
I do not understand why the MSPA is creating so much fuss. It has all the expertise to sit down and negotiate a reasonable agreement with the workers. The MSPA has always been looked down upon by the workers. They always have a credibility problem. In spite of enjoying the support of the mainstream press, they have never been able to look fair in their dealing. It has to blame itself for such a situation.
Political parties have built their campaign against the sugar barons as a symbol of oppression. MMM had come to power in 1982 with a program to distribute 20,000 acres of land, nationalizing the industry and taking it away from the control of 14 families. Today I am told that the number has been reduced to four.
Now they are investing in all sectors - IRS, RES, malls, hotels and in many projects abroad. I am sure that if they do not reach a settlement with the workers, they will be the losers. As per law, workers will not lose their jobs if they go on strike. They will lose only their wages. We should not forget that our prosperity and development are based on industrial peace and harmony.
At this juncture, we cannot afford a strike in the sugar industry. It is not a solution. The Labour party has taken a stand for the workers but it is for the MSPA to take all initiatives and measures to reach a settlement with the workers. Government, through its minister of Labour, Shakeel Mohammed, is prepared to help. He enjoys the full support of the prime minister to help both parties reach a settlement.
Is it not time to finish the unfinished job, i.e land reforms, instead of electoral reforms?