Cane growers don’t want another Girmit through Bills 19 & 20.

Growers oppose Bill

Felix Chaudhary The Fiji Times. Thursday, May 19, 2016

TO say that sugarcane growers in the Western Division are vehemently opposed to Government’s Reform of the Sugar Cane Industry Bill would be an understatement.

All the farmers who made submissions to the Standing Committee on Economic Affairs in the West last week — whether politically aligned or not — agree on one thing.

There is a need for wider consultation because of the immense impact the Bill and the Fiji Sugar Cane Growers Fund Amendment Bill will have on the way the industry is managed, run and operated if the legislation comes into effect.

While it could be fair comment to say that political parties and growers representative organisations may have influenced farmers’ views and submissions to some extent, one can understand the frustrations and concerns of canegrowers across the country — that they were not given enough time to go over the details of the two Bills to be able to form their own opinion.

Another factor that needs consideration, as farmers repeatedly pointed out, was that the Bills were never translated into iTaukei and Hindi to help them better understand these two pieces of legislation.

Growers are unanimous on the need for real consultations on sections of the reform Bill that will affect them — like the Sugar Master Award, cane payment system and their representation in the industry. They are suspicious of the industrial action clause and penalties that could be meted out without any avenue for recourse.

They view the recently formed Council of Sugar Cane Growers and the two Bills as Government’s attempt to control the industry by imposing its will on farmers, canecutters and lorry operators.

In short, they want more time to go through the details and they want parts of the Bill amended to abide by the principles of freedom and democracy enshrined and assured in the 2013 Constitution.

SUGAR INDUSTRY TRIBUNAL

Growers’ view

All the growers who made presentations strongly opposed the idea of the Sugar Industry Tribunal being moved to the Sugar Industry. They questioned the processes, as outlined in the Bill, for arbitration and called into question the independence of the tribunal.

Submissions made in all centres highlighted growers issues with the Ministry of Sugar permanent secretary’s involvement in disputes. Farmers said having the Sugar PS decide what constituted a dispute was unconstitutional and the disestablishment of the position of Registrar of Tribunal denied growers access to fair hearing and justice.

Government’s view

Standing Committee on Economic Affairs chairperson Lorna Eden said it was obvious that sugarcane growers did not understand or failed to comprehend the independence of the tribunal as stipulated in the reform Bill.

She told growers and growers' representative organisations that the tribunal was independent and would be appointed by the Chief Justice.

COUNCIL OF SUGAR CANE GROWERS

Growers’ view

The overwhelming view of all growers was that the newly formed Council did not represent canefarmers.

Farmers informed the standing committee that the six growers reps on the recently formed Council had been appointed by the Prime Minister and Minister for Sugar, Voreqe Bainimarama and this made their appointments political. Growers also said the six reps were from cane producers associations, an organisation formed to administer Fairtrade funds and regulations.

Farmers unanimously called on the Government to allow for elections to be held and for growers to elect one representative from each of the 38 cane growing sectors.

They said this would allow for a democratic process where people living in any sector would know who their elected rep was and where to go to air grievances or raise issues.

Government’s view

Ms Eden said the six cane producers association members were appointed because they represented growers from across the country.

REGISTER OF SUGARCANE GROWERS

Growers’ view

During the consultations in the Western Division, not one grower or representative organisation had anything positive to say about this provision in the Bill.

All were unanimous in calling for the register to remain with a growers' representative organisation and not the FSC — as proposed under the Bill.

Farmers viewed the transfer of the register to the FSC as the height of politicisation.

Many said the provisions of the Bill would allow for the cancellation of any growers registration by the FSC on the order of the Sugar Minister.

Government’s view

Ms Eden said the growers’ views were noted and they would include this in their report to Parliament.

MASTER AWARD

Growers’ view

Farmers from Sigatoka, Nadi, Ba, Tavua and Rakiraki have rejected any amendment to the Sugar Master Award without detailed consultations.

At every centre the Standing Committee held submissions, farmers expressed serious concerns about this section of the Bill and the powers bestowed on the Sugar Minister to revoke and make the Master Award.

Growers were of the view that the process stipulated in the Bill where the Sugar Minister can make the Master Award in consultation with the FSC and Growers Council was flawed because both institutions were fully controlled by Government.

Elderly farmers said when the Master Award was constructed in the past, it was done after widespread consultations and the documents were prepared by judicial officers and not the Sugar Minister.

Government’s view

Ms Eden informed growers in the west that the Sugar Minister would not construct the Sugar Master Award in isolation.

She said the Sugar Minister would seek the views of the miller and growers through the FSC and Council of Sugar Cane Growers.