ORANGE WALK–Up until late last week, today had been the date set as the latest date for the signing of a revised commercial agreement between the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA) and the factory owners, Belize Sugar Industries (BSI)/ American Sugar Refineries (ASR); however, the ill-fated 2014/2015 sugar cane crop season remains stalled, at this point, because of a controversial clause which was reportedly inserted into the agreement recently by BSI/ASR.
Therefore, instead of placing their signatures on the dotted line today, as was scheduled, the 18 directors of the association were called to a meeting at the BSCFA’s headquarters in Orange Walk this morning because of a major gripe, which basically involves replacing a body called the Sugar Cane Production Committee (SCPC), a governmental oversight entity that manages cane quality and acceptance, with a new entity called the Harvest and Delivery Control Unit (HDCU), controlled by BSI.
This latest issue continues to hinder the progress of an already delayed sugar cane crop season since the cañeros believe that BSI/ASR’s proposed Harvest and Delivery Control Unit would not only be influenced by the factory owners, but will also lack sufficient supervision from the Government to ensure that the farmers’ produce is not unduly rejected.
While the meeting continued lengthily inside the BSCFA conference room, Amandala spoke to Diodi Novelo, a member of the association’s negotiating team, who was among a group of at least 50 cañeros who waited outside to hear what would happen next in their industry, and he explained the source of the new problem.
He said, “We, as the negotiating team that was there before, had agreed that the HDCU was to be taken out from the contract. We all agreed with BSI/ASR, just to find out now that since the cane farmers accepted on Sunday the three items in contention, now BSI has sent back the contract to be reviewed by the BSCFA people, and they noticed that the HDCU was included in there.”
“BSI is not playing clean. BSI wants to introduce that HDCU for them to be in control of the situation in delivering of cane, and to me, if I was there in office with them, I would put my point that this is the clear opportunity to tell BSI that we are going back to square one, we are going to start to negotiate because you are not playing clean; you have already entered something we have already rejected”, he went on to say.
We also spoke to Gus Ramirez, a cañero from Corozal, who called on the Government to take a step further in terms of being balanced and easing the burdens of the local farmers who do not benefit from the concessions that the multinational foreign investor receives in relation to fuel, taxes, vehicles and vehicle parts.
With this new matter now at the forefront, there is no word on whether the unfortunate deadlock is about to be resolved anytime soon, and as a result, the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB) has jumped into the fray in hopes of agitating for an agreement which is favorable to the 5,500 cañeros and their families who, up to this point, are still gripped by uncertainty.
Firebrand Christian Workers Union (CWU) president Audrey Matura-Shepherd, who was backed by some of her union colleagues from the NTUCB, gave us a spirited interview as they arrived to go into the meeting in Orange Walk Town this morning.
“The decision of BSI/ASR and Belize Cane Farmers Association gravely impacts our employees first and foremost, but more importantly, it impacts the nation. People have not been keeping track of this issue and where we are right now is going to be a grave disservice and injustice if these farmers go ahead and sign this agreement with BSI/ASR. I don’t know how much you all were updated yesterday with the trickery they tried on them when they tried to insert a clause. That trickery is not only an insult to the cane farmers association, but it’s an insult to this nation because the law is clear as to who could be the entity that regulates the quality of cane. We realize that they are taking advantage of the farmers, and if nobody can’t see it, then we will show them. Why pressure them into an agreement that makes them give up the ownership of their cane? How could the Prime Minister have entered negotiations and not come out with one point for the farmers. If you all realize, the farmers conceded to all three points. That can’t be fair negotiations.”
“I am not here as the legal representative of anyone. I am here as the National Trade Union Congress, and as the president of the CWU, and thank God, yes I do have a law degree so the bull**** that they are trying put on the farmers when they try to insert a new clause cannot happen”, she fervently mentioned.
Late this evening, the umbrella union issued a stern press release that urged the 18 directors of the BSCFA not to settle for a permanent agreement, but to keep the negotiating window open.
The NTUCB contended that the move to replace the SCPC with the HDCU is in contravention of the law, and is an attempt to “control and disenfranchise the farmers”, who, they say, are being forced to sign off on an agreement that is “compounded by the complicity of the government and its political directorate.”
The press release said that the NTUCB, “…calls on the farmers to wake up and denounce the trickery that has been played on them, and to realize it is not too late to stop the signing of this oppressive and economically crippling agreement being deceptively visited on them.” It went on to urge, “Wake up, Directors – DON”T SIGN! Stand up and fight for the industry your forefathers have literally shed blood, sweat and tears to build.”
It further condemned the Government for alleged biased intervention, which, the union stated, is “oppressive and unfair, and undermines the cane farmers, who are the bedrock of the sugar industry.”
The Government, in response, also sent out a press release today which said that the agreement was openly debated and approved by BSCFA directors, its negotiating team, and its general assembly.
The press release went on to say that, “It is therefore incredibly patronizing and just plain wrong for the NTUCB to think and say that it knows better than the farmers; and to protest sorrow at, and in effect condemn, a decision of the BSCFA taken in the full exercise of their judgment.”
The Government called on all parties “attempting to hinder the process of the commercial agreement” to place the best interest of the industry before their own “narrow gains.”
At the same time, the Government did not spare BSI/ASR, saying that they, “…must be equally reprimanded for their bad faith in having tried to undermine the SCPC, the only entity mandated and, by tradition capable of independently determining cane quality and harvest scheduling. GOB stood with the BSCFA in rejecting this effort, just as it stood with the BSCFA in first insisting on payment to the farmers for bagasse.”
At the end of the 3-hour session, BSCFA Committee of Management Chairman, Ezekiel Cansino, told us why today’s meeting was necessary.
“We understood, and we were clear in negotiations that the SCPC will be the body who will be regulating the harvesting, delivery and rejection programs, and that was not included in the agreement [that we got back from BSI/ASR]. So, we returned the proposal to them asking them to include that. In turn, they gave us part of it, but it was not complete. And today, we put it on record and decided that this will be the last chance that we will be sending them the proposal to include the SCPC as the regulating body. If that doesn’t happen, well, a decision has to be made, and we have to come back again to the 18 directors to decide what will be the next step”, he told us.
The BSCFA’s Alfredo Ortega, who had adamantly denounced the direction in which the negotiations had been going in terms of the BSCFA yielding to BSI/ASR’s demands, gave us his take on the current state of the negotiations.
“I would really want to ask the support of the farmers moving forward not to support the signing of this agreement the way it is. At the very end, it will be the farmers that will end up losing, so I would really want that a change be made to the agreement by BSI so that both parties will be able to benefit [equally] from it”, Ortega noted.
He informed us that the association is appreciative of the backing of the NTUCB, and that they plan to reach out to other sectors of the society in order to garner national support as they try to deal with their predicament.
BSI/ASR’s argument, however, is that the clause in question was always there, and that it was never taken out, but no one was paying proper attention to it.
“In that draft agreement, we introduced no new change. The draft agreement that was sent on Monday was based on the last draft agreement that we presented to the BSCFA on the 9th October, which was the last date when we sat to negotiate, and so that was the last agreement that we had before we met with the Prime Minister. And so, once we met with the Prime Minister, we updated that draft with the three points that were agreed, that was surfaced as points of contention, and we submitted that revised draft to the BSCFA”, Belizario Carballo, the Chief Financial Officer of BSI, maintained in an interview with the media today.
This evening, BSI also sent out a press release which stated, “in a considered effort to finalize an agreement, BSI further revised its position on this matter in the revised Agreement submitted to the BSCFA today….BSI accepts that the process and criteria for cane rejection would be developed and agreed between the parties in consultation with the SCPC. This provides for the SCPC to administer the cane rejection procedures agreed to by the parties. BSI has in no instance tried to undermine the SCPC.”
Of note is that BSI was scheduled to hold a press conference at their office in Orange Walk at 2:00 p.m. today to “clear up certain misleading information being propagated through the media.”; however, that session was abruptly called off and BSI employees were sent home for the rest of the day, while there was cement blockage across the entrance to the factory, presumably in light of rumors of an imminent protest by cañeros.
In the meanwhile, Cansino told us that presently, there is no indication as to when the 2014-2015 sugar crop season will kick off, and what is even more daunting is that there is a distinct suggestion on the part of the BSCFA that farmers have given up enough, and that if BSI/ASR does not demonstrate corresponding flexibility in the protracted negotiations, they (the BSCFA) are prepared to take negotiations back to square one.