Get a load of this. An 82-year-old widow whose husband had spent 49 years of his life working for a sugar mill discovered to her great dismay that the company has stopped disbursing an additional month’s pay at the end of the year. Instead, it’s being staggered over twelve months. “It’s very frustrating”, she said over the phone. What’s the fuss, you wonder as long as she receives the full amount she’s due, it doesn’t really matter if it’s paid in installments or all at once. But this little accountancy trick is far more pernicious than it may seem at first glance. For the 99%, the thirteenth month is a financial lifeline, a brief reprieve from the constant struggle against the rising cost of living. And the fact that a major industry player has dispensed of it simply to please the bean counters is indicative of the insensitivity of sugar producers.
Business, like life, is all about give and take. This is all the more true in a sector with as loaded a history as the sugar industry. The companies comprising it however are singularly disinterested in such niceties, perhaps because they’ve always had things their way. For decades, they lived the dream that was the preferential sugar regime: a magic world of high prices and low wages. When that ended, billions of rupees in compensation were made available by the European Union under the Multi-Annual Adaptation Strategy. In addition, the majority of them make a killing, doubling as Independent Power Producers and selling electricity to the Central Electricity Board. When they decided en masse to become property developers, they were exempted from having to pay land conversion tax thanks to the Sugar Industry Efficiency Act.
But despite being the recipients of all this largesse, they have demonstrated precious little desire to dialogue with other stakeholders. And the situation is only getting worse. This frustrating fact was confirmed to me the other day by someone who had worked his whole life in the industry. Although relations between the mills and workers have always been tense, there was in the past, on occasion at least, a shared sense of the need to compromise for the greater good. Now that the industry is controlled by corporations more interested in playing a numbers game than anything else, such a spirit of cooperation seems increasingly unlikely. This helps explain why many workers and artisans feel they have no other option than to go on strike if they’re to secure better working conditions.
Predictably, the Mauritius Sugar Producers’ Association has contented itself with parroting that such an action would be illegal. The Mauritius Employers’ Federation got on the bandwagon last Friday, ostensibly out of solidarity for the hard done-by members of Plantation House. How very constructive. An elderly widow and sugar industry workers may seem like an odd combination, but they have something in common: they know what it’s like to be treated with disdain by sugar conglomerates. Some things, it seems, never change.