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Sugar pact likely today. Workers unhappy, but favour housing offer

By Balford Henry, Jamaica Gleaner, 31 January 2000

SUGAR WORKERS are unhappy at the levels of wage and fringe benefits their employers are offering them. However, indications are that their unions will sign a new two-year agreement with the Sugar Producers' Federation (SPF) today at the Ministry of Labour.

The parties are to meet at the ministry's headquarters, North Street, Kingston, at 10 a.m. when the unions will respond to the settlement offer made by the sugar estates, represented by the SPF, at their last meeting on January 20.

The three unions -- the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), National Workers Union (NWU) and the University and Allied Workers Union (UAWU) -- have met with workers at all eight estates which employ the more than 7,000 workers and put the proposals to them.

This is a departure from the normal process, whereby the unions would sign on the advice of the delegates and try to sell the package to the workers afterwards. This time, although there was some resentment about taking that route, most of the unions' representatives felt that, in light of the wage situation, it would be the preferred route.

The workers have reacted to the offers from the unions with a great deal of resentment. The unions themselves have indicated that they are agreeing to wage and crop bonus figures under protest. But, the workers were swayed by the general acceptance that the industry is basically broke, as well as the offer of 5,000 houses over the next five years at specially negotiated rates through the National Housing Trust (NHT).

Professor Trevor Munroe, president of the UAWU, admitted that the unions had to overcome a threat from a vocal minority of the workers to strike in protest against the wage and fringe benefits offers:

"There was a strong, vocal minority who wanted to take industrial action. But, the unions advised them that this would hurt rather than help the situation," he said.

The agreement will mean a pay increase of 5 per cent in the first year and a further 5 per cent in the second year, plus a 5 per cent crop bonus this year and another 71/2 per cent crop bonus next year.

There will also be increases in overtime and allowances at the same level.

"The unions are very dissatisfied and would wish it was otherwise, but given the state of the industry we could not do otherwise," Dr. Munroe said.

The majority of the workers were influenced into supporting the offer by the tantalising carrot of cheap housing. Three out of every four sugar workers do not own a house.

The estates, the unions and the Government, through the NHT, have agreed on a process in which the estate will provide non-sugar lands which will be developed and the NHT provide affordable mortgages over the next five years. The first 1,000 houses are slated to be built this year, beginning February 1.

As an additional attraction to the workers, the NHT has agreed to roll the down payment into the mortgage loan, giving the workers the option of not having to make a down payment.

Also the workers will have a say in the distribution of the houses as they will have representatives on a committee to decide the allocation which will also involve the NHT and the SPF.

At today's meeting at the ministry, the union leaders are expected to carry out the mandate of the workers by accepting the offer from the SPF, but not with smiling faces.

Dr. Munroe explains: "It will be signed with a great sense of achievement in terms of the housing proposal, but we will sign under protest because these are minor wage improvements, even though they are unavoidable."

Other benefits offered for the workers are:

  • An extension of their health plan benefits to include the families of the workers, but which will involve increased contributions.
  • Where there are workers with the skills to make repairs, they, instead of outside contractors, will be offered contracts to do the work.
  • A skills upgrading programme which will offer the workers the opportunity of developing skills which can create employment for them outside the industry, if necessary.
  • Increased communication between workers and employers in terms of reducing waste and increasing efficiency, in a consultative committee. This is already in effect at Monymusk and Frome estates, but only at the factory workers' level.