Managing sugar’s remaining socio-political challenges

A Perspective

A severance pay protest


Some measure of practical relief would have been brought to the laid off sugar workers, victims of the meltdown of the once all-powerful sugar industry though it is clear that the travails of both the government and the hapless former GuySuCo employees and their families are far from at an end.

At the outset the point should be made that government’s intervention, at this juncture, to allow for a partial payment of severance to the laid-off sugar workers was a move that it had little choice but to make. It had been preceded by both expressions of concern among social commentators as well as the private sector regarding fears of an extended hiatus between being laid off and being afforded their severance payment. What is also in evidence and would unquestionably have grown worse as time went by is a persistent pinprick of political agitation on the matter fuelled by what was bound to be the practical difficulties arising out of the loss of jobs.

If most of the public reportage on the laying off of thousands of sugar workers has more-or-less been skirting the edges of its political implications none of us who live in the reality of the situation will doubt for a moment that there are profound political implications to the situation. The sharp divisions on whether or not the time had come to bite the bullet and begin the winding down of a sugar industry which, in economic terms, had long become a considerable economic burden to the nation had been driven largely by political perspectives  and this will continue, doubtless, to be the case into the future.

Insofar as the industry is concerned, however, the die has unquestionably been cast and the question, going forward, now has to do with the future of the workers and their families and after that the future of what is left of GuySuCo’s inventory.

The issue of what happens to the workers and their families is a complex one. There have already been some gestures in the direction of limited social programmes aimed at cushioning the misfortunes of the laid off sugar workers. Here, it has to be said that whatever happens the worst thing that could happen would be to allow political differences to stand in the way of what is now the need to mitigate the plight of the sugar workers. Here, the question should be asked regarding not only social programmes to protect the vulnerable in what was once the country’s sugar belt but also the importance of creating, as far as possible, self-sustaining job opportunities for those who are without jobs. There is also a role in those communities for functionaries with social services-related skills since the relative suddenness of job losses and the consequences that will doubtless include frustration and loss of face associated with reduced ability to sustain families will likely give rise to social problems that will require sustained professional attention.

Insofar as the ‘politics’ of the demise of the sugar industry is concerned the challenge here reposes in the fact that it has, inevitably, become a bone of contention between the two dominant political factions in the country with the worrisome factor of race thrown in for good measure. And since we are likely to be dealing with one or another facet of the fallout from the significant labour displacement that has occurred there is clearly the need for us to develop mechanisms to deal with the ethno-social fallout. While we can only hope that the travails of the so-called sugar communities will encounter a generous measure of empathy from the unaffected communities we need to hold ourselves in readiness in the event that the various other far less desirable forms of social fallout occur.

One of the real challenges that arise out of the situation confronting the former sugar workers has to do with whether, collectively, we can turn the situation around by putting heads together to weigh in with constructive recommendations regarding meaningful alternative means of employment. Such initiatives will require interventions at the levels of government, the private sector and social and skills-based organizations. Here it is important to recognize that the challenge is a national one and that there is a need to tackle it collectively. Incidentally, projecting the problems arising out of sugar as a national challenge that deserves all of our attention is very much the responsibility of government.

The media has, of course, made its own considerable contribution to the discourse and there have been instances in which reportage on the issue has been clearly undergirded by political interpretation. No one can deny that such situations were probably likely to arise, anyway, though it is the extent to which we can put those behind us, that counts. We cannot afford to allow the unfortunate consequences of the demise of the sugar industry to become the cause of debilitating socio-political setbacks. The solution, whatever it is, reposes in tackling the challenges together.

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