Government should revive sugar at Wales through private investment in partnership with the workers

Dear Editor,

Much has been written about what should happen to the state-owned sugar estates that have been losing a lot of money. I visited the greater Wales (WBD) area several times over the last year and indisputably, Wales’ closure has had a wide impact socially and spatially revealing a deep scar in the community with far reaching effects that would last forever. The consequences of shuttering the factory are severe for the former employees, their families and businesses in the surrounding area and in Georgetown as well, and the nation at large, not to mention the state coffers.

It is hard to measure the negative effects of the closure of the factory: rising unemployment, drug abuse, infrastructural decay, educational underperformance, crime, family break-ups, children running away from home, mental health deterioration, alcoholism, closure of various services, emotional depression, stress, and other social and economic adversities. The same is expected in other sugar communities which government plans to close.

Those interviewed in Wales said closing the estate, especially without alternative employment or social welfare benefits for the unemployed, was a terrible decision that hurts everyone. The closure has resulted in a loss of thousands of jobs directly and indirectly that would have continued to contribute to economic activities and national tax collection. Also affected are wholesale businesses in Georgetown that supply various goods, drinks and services to retailers in greater Wales. And national VAT collection is down because of reduced purchases – a scarcity of revenues needed to fund varied government will hurt all communities.

It was pointed out that while Wales Estate employed some 1700, it supported some 2500 jobs and 3000 families with an overall population of over 13,000. Before the estate closure, the business community ‒ street vendors, stores or family shops, small groceries, alfresco, etc ‒ was buzzing with shoppers. Life was relatively good as workers (heads of households with support from other working adults) were earning a decent income to support and care for a family. Today, too many have lost their livelihoods and the area looks like a ghost town with the standard of living in sharp decline. Many residents said the estate closure had taken food out of people’s hands and mouths. For many families, being employed at Wales was the only job available, and too many families had only one person working.

Most of those employed at the estate have been out of work for over six months as they lack skills for other jobs. They try to make ends doing odd jobs, but regular paid work is simply not available. Men are skylarking in the streets instead of working. As such, they are lacking an income to meet the most elementary of expenses, including purchasing basic foods. Many families don’t have enough money to give their children to get to school or for pocket money. Women are in distress unable to meet the needs of children as promised benefits to former workers have not materialized. The former workers complain that severance pay has not been honoured completely across the board.

Shopkeepers complain that the number of customers in their stores has sharply decreased. It was noted that market day at Wales and surrounding areas was once teeming with business before the closure of the estate. But now there is hardly any business. Stallholders complain they can’t even earn enough to pay their daily market fee; they can’t meet expenses. They run at a loss buying and selling.

Observing living conditions in Wales is heart rending; so many lives are affected. The people complain that government is not showing compassion and care for them. The government needs to act urgently to help the people who hope to see a resumption of estate operations, cultivating cane and producing sugar. All one hundred percent of the residents are behind the resumption of sugar production. One idea being floated is a joint workers-private company management of the Wales sugar factory. The former workers should be given the land in cooperatives or individually to grow cane and sell it to private mill managers for the grinding and marketing of sugar and its by-products.

There are also some 2500 acres of cane land under cultivation by private farmers that have been left fallow. These hundreds of private farmers depend on a working mill to purchase their cane. They will benefit from the resumption of cane grinding by a rehabilitated factory.

People say the government does not care for them because it has not made a genuine effort to help them. This is not about politics or race as people of all races and political affiliations are affected. It is about people’s lives. The goverment has to show it cares for sugar workers and will win them back.

Government claims Wales and other estates were mismanaged. Then it is advised to come up with a workable plan to resume profitable cultivation and the grinding of cane at Wales. It is noted that private farmers can produce cane at two to three times the rate of estate workers. Private production is profitable. A sensible move then is to give some of the Wales land to the former workers to grow cane and let a private company run the mill. Government would need to provide some kind of support guarantees to the private investor on terms to be negotiated. Aiding the former workers of Wales to resume cane production will help to prevent further socio-economic deterioration of those workers’ families and the community at large.

The people call on President Granger and Prime Minister Nagamootoo (a sugar man), and Minister Joe Harmon (a West Bank man), all of whom promised during the election campaign that no estate would be closed, to show compassion and empathy for the Wales workers and the greater community by reviving the sugar industry through private investment in partnership with the workers. In helping Wales, the government will be aiding itself with potential support from Wales voters for re-election.

Yours faithfully,

Vishnu Bisram

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