The sugar industry

News that the verbal spat between the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) and GuySuCo was defused through the intervention of VP Bharrat Jagdeo, was most welcome. The agreed-to payout – going back to unresolved wage issues from 2019 under the vindictive PNC regime – of a nominal $28,000 per worker was an acknowledgement of the cries for justice by the sugar workers. And this is the point made by the VP – that the new management team of GuySuCo must appreciate.
Sugar workers have been exploited for four centuries, starting with slavery and indentureship, and they have had to struggle for every right they now possess. They are very sensitive to being treated as if they are objects rather than autonomous subjects. Every one of these workers, whether in the factories or the cane fields, has tremendous institutional knowledge of the industry. And just as the Scottish and Irish neophyte managers and overseers of yore used to be groomed by them into the minutiae of field and factory operations, the new management must be humble enough to include them in analysing what ails the industry and in charting a path to success. One can state unequivocally that regardless of the “best laid plans” of management and ministry, there will be no success without the buy-in of workers.
The second point to be noted – which is not unrelated to the first – is that the sugar industry would be more properly appreciated if it is dealt with as a “sugar cane industry”, with a factory appendage to extract the sugar crystals from the sugar cane. GuySuCo is therefore a hybrid agricultural and manufacturing entity, and the two components must be closely coordinated. It was this coordination imperative that necessitated pliant, cheap, and always available labour, which was used to justify slavery and indentureship. With those “labour arrangements” having been abolished, management will have to be more realistic and creative to use all means at their disposal to ensure that labour is made comfortable without the old draconian measures.
For instance, back in 1968, the Crane Commission had introduced annual “profit sharing” based on a 60-40 breakdown between workers (60%) and owners (40%). When sugar prices skyrocketed in 1974, Burnham’s PNC Government introduced the “Sugar Levy” that scooped off the windfall and profits thereafter. Rather than reinvesting the Levy to recapitalise the factories, Burnham embarked on his Hydro-Power pipe dream, and workers lost “corn and husk”. The factories were never rehabilitated, and the workers lost profit-sharing.
The sugar-cane industry in Guyana is labour intensive, and while there has been much talk about “mechanisation” picking up the slack of the high field-employee absentee rate, it is a bit more complicated. Ultimately, because of our peculiar hydraulic conditions, that ensure our soils are always waterlogged, mechanised planting and reaping – whether cutting and loading, or combined – compact the soil and strangle plant growth because of poor soil aeration. The poor ratoons after the first crop bear witness to this factor.
Guyana’s sugar cane industry, based on our coastland, will always be more labour intensive than others.
Furthermore, as Guyana’s economy improves and expands with the execution of the manifesto and plans of the PPPC Government, there will be new opportunities opened up for labour – skilled and unskilled – in the economy. If, at this time, when the economy is still at the take off point, GuySuCo cannot incentivise workers’ participation, unless there is a more nuanced approach, the alienation will only increase. There have been suggestions that workers be allocated 15-acre plots as was done in the Belle Vue, WBD scheme back in the Bookers days. The productivity from this pilot project was always higher than GuySuCo’s, as were that of the private farmers in the Canals Polders. This might be one way to address the labour conundrum in the sugar cane industry.
Producing value added sugar products would also increase profitability. For this reason, we are somewhat nonplussed that the production of Factory White Plantation Sugar has not been initiated.