Sugarcane: A Long Journey of Pleasure and Pain

On 10th November 2015, the Mauritius Sugar Producers Association (MSPA) issued a curt communiqué, stating that its sugar-producing members had unanimously decided to dissolve the Association, ending its 68-year existence. As in the case of any association, the MSPA’s objective was to defend the interests of its members – the large corporate sugar producers of Mauritius grouped together. The end of its career now should mean that it no longer feels the need to defend the collective interest of all those who had decided to form part of it in 1947. Each one has grown strong enough to defend himself successfully.

Members of the MSPA have been the privileged interlocutors of the various governments in place since the creation of the association in matters of sugar production policies and wage negotiations respecting workers employed in the sugarcane sector of Mauritius. The association has thus played a determining role in the allocation and utilization of land resources in Mauritius, the expansion and diversification of the sugar industry as well as the distribution of sugar revenues and benefits among the different stakeholders of the sugar industry during its fairly long history.

A seat of corporate power

The seat of the association at the entrance of Port Louis in Place d’Armes in the Plantation House, which also housed the Joint Economic Council of the private sector, the Mauritius Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Mauritius Sugar Syndicate (MSS), has stood up as a major symbol of corporate power in the country over all the decades of the MSPA’s existence, something like our own Wall Street. Both the government and this industry association were advantaged by being able to engage in useful direct dialogue with each other to fend off unnecessary industrial disputes in the labour-intensive sugar industry of yore.

In previous past decades involving the ascendancy of a predominantly socialist-type politics in the country and the implied lookout for wider redistribution of economic power in the country, the dialogue between the two sides was not always smooth. The MSPA put up stiff resistance when trade unions looked for better worker compensations backed by the governments. Political parties seeking re-election often identified what they rhetorically called the “sugar barons”, as exemplified by a grouping like the MSPA, as an obstacle to their redistribution objective. To be fair, governments wanted a fairer distribution of above world market prices they had been able to negotiate in favour of our sugar, notably with the EU under the Lomé Convention and America under preferential trade arrangements and latterly the African Growth and Opportunity Act. They had a point.

Not to be outdone, the MSPA had its own privileged access in the ranks of the government and the opposition. It employed such contacts to drive decisions in its favour as far as possible. That is how governments took decisions such as the centralisation and modernisation of sugar production in the 1980s, removal of the flexibilities contained in previous labour laws in favour of workers, the establishment of special tribunals and official boards to determine worker allocations and remunerations in the industry on pre-set timetables, pricing of sugar and its by-products between small and large planters and sugar factories as well as the marketing of sugar produced in Mauritius through a centralised agency, notably, the Mauritius Sugar Syndicate. The MSPA had a say directly or indirectly in all these matters.

What one should retain behind this epilogue

Its decision to pull off the plug of the association as from 10th November this year implies that its members must be feeling that they no longer have to group together to defend their interests. Sufficient structural changes must have taken place for each one of its members to feel strong enough to be able to defend itself without having to put up a common front. By the same token, members would be able to insulate themselves from policy decisions that would have otherwise imposed collective compliance on all of them, such as collective wage negotiations. They would also cease to be the butt of criticism when things do not go so well in the economy by avoiding to remain in the limelight and then be seen as an “anti-socialist” lobby.

On its part, the government will no longer be able to prevail on advantages conferred on the sugar sector, such as the allocation of benefits under the EU agreed Multi-Annual Adaptation Strategy 2006-15 (MAAS) in the context of the phasing out of our sugar quotas and preferential exports to the EU, to make large sugar producers accountable towards the collective future course of the industry. Factors such as continuing reduction of land under sugar cultivation and increasing mechanisation of production processes have minimized the importance labour once had in the growth and development of the sector.

The effect of such developments is not only to have successively reduced the labour force employed in the sugar sector to a minimum. Labour employed by large sugar establishments in both planting and milling activities stood at only 7,662 at end-March 2015, down from 7,937 a year earlier. Although critical at certain levels in the production process, workers have been so drastically reduced in each unit of sugar production in the country as not to constitute the bulwark of collective strength they once represented in this sector. That could be the reason why the MSPA decided lately to step out of customary wage negotiations for the sugar sector, preferring to leave workers to engage in typical capitalist-style standalone discussions with each one of the units in which they are employed.

Understandably, the centralisation process of sugar production and its ownership has made it dispense with the large labour force it once needed to produce. This has enabled separate units in the sector to move out into other fields such as energy production for the national grid, the hospitality sector, production and sale of luxury villas under government-incentivized schemes, ethanol, vegetables and other foods. While the large establishments of the sugar sector still process the cane produced by small planters, they can now lean on several layers of activity compared with their once sugar and its by-products alone.

It is the trend in other countries as well for production units to move upscale in the struggle for economic survival. There are benefits of scale and access to labour-saving technology as production becomes increasingly medium to high-tech from lightly-processed and low-tech, as it has happened in countries which have really become high-income economies.

On our part, we haven’t had either the initiative or the vision to lift everybody who was engaged in the sugar sector at high tide, that is, when the sector took a turn for diversification of production. Those large units which had the economic muscle and wealth concentration went up the scale and are gathering the necessary resilience to face upcoming challenges.

The others – unskilled, semi-skilled workers, small planters, metayers, etc. – were left to fend for themselves with whatever resources they could muster on their own or not. If governments had no time to reorganize the left-behinds for a collective brighter future as did the former members of the MSPA for themselves, who else could have done so? Left to themselves, small planters have not come together to work out strategies on how to successfully forge ahead in the changed global business environment of today.

Conclusion

For all practical purposes, the members of the MSPA, who now don’t even want their sugar to be collectively marketed by the MSS, have set sail on their individual ships, free from obligations they might have had to incur as a collective vehicle of large owners. Those left behind – the workers, small planters – are increasingly finding it uneconomic to carry on activities in the resulting circumstances, left to themselves. Yet, when you come to think of it, even the colonial governments which encouraged sugar production over centuries, had to give in to demands for improved welfare policies for the left-behinds. It was thus that the offsprings of the latter obtained access to education, healthcare, improving living conditions, aspirations to run the affairs of state and the right to emancipate because politicians of that era took to heart a common cause with the deprived. They were not superficial.

It’s so much changed from what it used to be. Had it not been for sugarcane, the identity called Mauritius would not even have emerged. Despite the absence of mechanisation, people who came here experienced the joy of working hard because it guaranteed them a living. They could contemplate the future more brightly as a promise of better things to come, unlike the situation where the left-behind worker, small planter finds himself in at present.

 

 

  • Published in print edition on 13 November 2015

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