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Sugar workers protest wages

The Daily Herald, 16 May 2000

BASSETERRE, St. Kitts - A group of sugar workers, most of them from the Dominican Republic, protested in front of Government headquarters Monday demanding a meeting with Agriculture Minister Cedric Liburd.

The protesters were calling for equity in the wages paid to them as they alleged that the cane cutters from Guyana were paid higher wages for the same amount of work that they do.

They were met by Permanent Secretary in the ministry Raphael Archibald who suggested that they go back to work before any dialogue could take place.

They also were disgruntled that every month, thirty dollars is deducted from their earnings, to pay back the cost of their air travel to and from St. Kitts.

Workers claimed that this was a breach of what they were told when the St. Kitts Sugar Manufacturing Corporation (SSMC) officials came to Santo Domingo to speak to them, before the start of the crop season.

Eventually, following pleas by government officials, the group moved from adjacent the Government Headquarters building and moved to the top of Church Street, from where they eventually returned to their camp in Monkey Hill, pending the outcome of the meeting with the government officials and the SSMC officials.

There was a heavy police presence and also the Defence Force was called in, just in case tempers got out of hand.

An SSMC official, meeting with the workers, dismissed legations of preferential payment of wages, explaining that the SSMC has one set of wages, based on production.

This, the official said was regardless of whether the cane cutters were local or foreign. Added to this though, he stated that in some cases, based on the terrain, cutters working in what he described as 'difficult areas,' were compensated for the additional work they had to do.

He also alleged that some of the cane cutters were in the habit of burning cane fields, to reduce the amount of work they've to go through, but that this works against them, as although the SSMC still practises the harvesting method of burning cane, this is done under strict supervision in areas that are typically difficult to harvest.

Meanwhile, the sugar production continued and for the week ending on May 7, a total of 136,145 tonnes of cane had been harvested to produce 13,544.69 tonnes of sugar, of which 5,167 tonnes of sugar have been exported. A further amount of 7,672.25 tonnes of sugar are available for shipment.

It is currently taking about 10.05 tonnes of sugar to produce one tonne of sugar.