Back in 2013, then President Donald Ramotar announced, as a measure to solve the “crisis” in the sugar industry, that his administration would be willing to consider forming sugar co-operatives to supply sugar cane to the factories . One of the main reasons for the collapse of the industry was the decline in the supply of cans to the factories.
Until then GUYSUCO management has been blaming the changing weather patterns for the shortfall in cane production. But while undoubtedly there has been more precipitation in the last decade, the President’s proposal of another type of production organization suggests that critics – including the big sugar union, GAWU – who had pointed fingers at managers, point. After all, co-operatives would also have to deal with the new weather pattern. Since then, the PNC government has closed 4 sugar estates, 3 of which are being reopened and perhaps the co-op proposal should be reconsidered.
The collaborative proposal is interesting for several reasons; one of them is trying to tackle one of the big problems in securing an adequate cane for the factories: retaining field workers. As the Guyanese economy improved since 1992, labor moved away as they did earlier in other CariCom countries, especially Barbados and St Kitts, where Guyanese seasonal laborers had taken advantage of the slack since the 1980s. Although the relatively low wage rate was certainly a factor in the exodus of cane fields, the social and psychological realities of the sugar industry also played an undervalued role.
It was not for free, when the International Labor Organization (ILO) was launched in 1919, that it emphasized the need for employers to provide “dignified working conditions” for the workers. “Dignity” is an impractical right of human beings but unfortunately denied to those who labored. In the early days, only the “nobility” possessed “dignity” and of course there was sub-mining for them.
The sugar industry in the West Indies was founded on slave labor, which, more than any other organization in the history of mankind, abolished the dignity of the laborers in the field. He left a lasting legacy in the minds of our people that field labor in general, and field labor 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 development, as it appears to be the first mention of dignity in its modern sense in a major legal text. It was worth noting that the British declaration had no such aspiration and the “education” system that followed emphasized that “dignity” was only found in the professions and offices. Never in the fields.
This attitude has continued in the Caribbean and Guyana and explains the reluctance of the cane cutters’ children to follow their fathers to the cane fields, once alternatives are available. The co-op is a mechanism that seeks to bridge the “alienation of labor” from their products, which Marx criticized as inherent in the capitalist mode of production – not just its early slave variant. The workers would share in producing the co-op and also profit it.
Fortunately, in Guyana, co-ops are not a theory as a vehicle for growing sugar cane. In 1956, as part of Jock Campbell’s visionary reform of socialist thought, Chairman Bookers launched the Belle Vue Co-op association with 57 sugar workers. They were all given control of 15 acres of land, house lots, loans for a completed house, garden plot and so on. This initiative was launched specifically to tackle the issue of “alienation”. Later, to comply with other industry initiatives, they were joined by other private sugar cane producers on the west bank of Demerara, including the Canold Polders.
Overall, the model was successful and we commend it to the administration for consideration. All employees must have their dignity.