Despite COVID-19, sugar workers

Tempers flared at Golden Grove Sugar Estate in Duckenfield, St Thomas, on Friday where scores had gathered in spite of the COVID-19 crowd restriction, after it was announced that money allocated by the Government would be disbursed to workers who lost their jobs when the factory closed last year.

While the police and members of the Jamaica Defence Force tried to maintain social distancing, the workers became agitated that they had been waiting in the scorching afternoon sun to collect their cheques, only for some of them to be told that their names were not on the list of workers submitted to receive payment.

Rupert Patterson, a 75-year-old cane cutter who was among the throng of men waiting outside the gate of the factory, told the Jamaica Observer that he had gone there in spite of the threat of COVID-19 because he had not worked since the factory closed, and he needed the money.

“Mi a wait fi bout three hours now and mi nuh get nuh pay yet. Mi still a wait fi see, because mi need it,” he said. The elderly man explained that he had been working at the sugar estate for many years, “From di sugar estate a run engine line”, said Patterson.

Donovan Russell, a contractor, lamented that of the 50 cane cutters who worked with him and whose names he had submitted, several of them were told that their names were not on the list of persons to be paid.

“Mi send up my list and mi see some a my worker dem nuh get nuttn. Mi waan fi know is why some man name cut off a di list. Dem need fi explain why,” said Russell.

Last year the parish’s sugarcane industry suffered a major blow after manufacturing company Seprod, which owns the plant, closed operations, putting scores of sugar cane farmers, cane cutters, factory workers, harvesters and tractor drivers out of employment.

In January, Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries Audley Shaw met with the workers and reassured them that sugar cane farmers and cane cutters would receive support from a $200-million allotment of funds announced in the wake of the closure. In addition to cash payments, the minister also said that the funds were to be used to assist famers to start planting new crops.

However, scores of other workers who were not farmers, namely harvesters, tractor drivers and ex-factory workers, complained that they too were not on the list of persons to receive payment.

“Di cultivators, the loaders, di maintenance fi di tractor — none a dem people nuh get pay yet,” said Garfield Harris, who worked a maintenance man at the estate.

Owen Webber, another cane cutter, complained that since the closure of the factory, he too has been struggling to make ends meet. He said that his primary means of income now comes from cutting down trees to make charcoal to sell.

“A long time mi nuh work because every weh lock dung. Everyting inna St Thomas fi wi mek a money off a, close dung,” he said. “And St Thomas people need di help. Today wi glad now fi di likkle money but right now nuff a wi unglad ’cause wi nuh have nuttn fi get,” he said.

Meanwhile, those who received cheques agitated for their colleagues who were not so fortunate.

“Everybody cross di table fi get a dollar,” said Vivian Russell, a cane cutter. “Even if dem tek some out fi mi and mek it up and give a next man, mi wudda feel betta ’cause some nuh get none at all, “he added. “But mi give thanks because dis do a lot. Remember wi haffi stay inside and wi haffi buy food.”

Past chairman of the All-Island Jamaica Cane Farmers’ Association, Allan Rickards told the Sunday Observer that while sugar cane farmers were accounted for and would be receiving their cash payment, representation for the other workers was lacking.

“They don’t have a leader to talk for them and I have undertaken to take up the matter with Bercyn [Farms],” said Rickards.“The problem is that the workers don’t know if they are on a list until they come here. Cane famers know because everybody who delivers a stick of cane is on a list. How the list of cutters and workers was compiled, I have no knowledge of that,” he said.

Rickards said that representatives Bercyn Farm Limited and FM Jones Estate, the new operators of the estate, would have to give account for the other workers.

“There are three sets of people being paid here today: cane cutters, ex-factory workers and cane farmers. I can talk about the cane farmers list. People employed to Bercyn who are not cane cutters, but who are front-end loaders, gantry workers, people like that, some of them who were employed to FM Jones, who want to know why they are not on the list.

“It is a question that needs to be answered by FM Jones and by Bercyn. Some of the people concerned are people I know from my days out here, and therefore I have undertaken to find out what the facts are with that,” Rickards said, adding that by and large the crowd had maintained discipline and observed social distancing as much as possible.

“The people have behaved remarkably, considering that the people with the cheques arrived an hour late. The reason why the ministry has pushed to go through with the payment now is because these are hard times. People need the cash assistance,” said Rickards.

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