Labour in Sugar

Back in 2013, then President Donald Ramotar announced that, as a measure to resolve the “crisis” in the sugar industry, his administration would be willing to consider the formation of “co-operatives” by sugar workers to supply sugar cane to the factories. One of the primary reasons for the collapse of the industry was the declining supply of canes to the factories.
Up to then management of GUYSUCO has been blaming the changing weather patterns for the shortfall in cane production. But while undoubtedly there was increased precipitation in the last decade, the President’s proposal of another form of production organisation suggests that critics – including the major sugar union, GAWU – who had pointed fingers at management, do have a point. After all, cooperatives would also have to deal with the new weather pattern. Since then, the PNC government has closed 4 sugar estates, of which 3 are being reopened and maybe the co-op proposal should be reconsidered.
The co-op proposal is intriguing for several reasons; one of which attempts to address one of the major problems in securing sufficient cane for the factories: retention of field workers. As the Guyanese economy had improved since 1992, labour drifted away as they had done earlier in the other CariCom countries, especially Barbados and St Kitts, where Guyanese seasonal labourers had taken up the slack since the 1980’s. While the comparatively low rate of pay was certainly a factor in the exodus from the cane fields, the social and psychological realities of the sugar industry also played an under-appreciated role.
It is not for nothing that when the International Labour Organisation (ILO) was launched in 1919, it emphasised the necessity of employers providing “dignified working conditions” for the workers. “Dignity” is an inalienable right of humans but unfortunately it was denied to those who laboured. In the early days, only the “nobles” possessed “dignity” and of course labour was infra-dig for them.
The sugar industry in the West Indies was founded on slave labour, which, more than any other institution in the history of mankind, stripped away the dignity of the labourers in the field. It left a lasting legacy in the minds of our people that field labour in general, and field labour in the sugar industry in particular, is to be avoided.
The decree that abolished slavery in the French empire on the basis of its incompatibility with human dignity, was an important breakthrough, as this seems to be the first mention of dignity in its modern sense in a major legal text. It was noteworthy that the British declaration had no such aspiration and the “education” system that followed emphasised that “dignity” was only found in the professions and the offices. Never in the fields.
This attitude has persisted in the Caribbean and in Guyana and explains the unwillingness of the children of the cane-cutters to follow their fathers into the cane fields, once alternatives are available. The co-op is a mechanism that attempts to straddle the “alienation of labour” from their products, which Marx criticised as inherent in the capitalist mode of production – not just its early slave-variant. The workers would share in the production of the co-op and also in its profits.
Fortunately, in Guyana, co-ops as a vehicle for cultivating sugar cane is not a theory. In 1956, as part of the visionary reform efforts of the socialistic-minded Jock Campbell, Chairman of Bookers launched the Belle Vue Co-op society with 57 sugar workers. They were each given control of 15 acres of land, house lots, loans for a completed house, garden plot etc. This initiative was specifically launched to address the “alienation” issue. Later, to comply with other initiatives by the industry, they were joined by other private sugar cane producers on the West Bank of Demerara, including the Canal Polders.
By and large, the model was successful and we commend it to the administration for consideration. All workers must have their dignity.