Sugar Bills worse than the dark days of CSR

Enslavement of canegrowers
By Bala Dass. 

(General Secretary of the National Federation Party as well as the General Secretary of the Fiji Cane Growers Association.)

The Fiji Times. Saturday May 14, 2016

Having studied the Reform of the Sugar Cane Industry Bill No.19 of 2016 and considering the views of the stakeholders who have made submission to the standing committee it is clear that sugarcane growers will be further enslaved and they will be at the mercy of Government in everything they do as part of sugar cane farming.

The Bill affects the livelihood of 200,000 people in our nation who are directly or indirectly dependent on the sugar industry.

Worse, it will subjugate around 16,000 growers, 12,872 of whom are active, under the Fiji Sugar Corporation (FSC) and Government, reminiscent of their darkest days during the 93 year old stranglehold of the industry and the nation by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR) (1880-1960) and its subsidiary South Pacific Sugar Mills (SPSM) (1961-1973).

Against a backdrop of such a frightening scenario for growers, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Economic Affairs scrutinising Bill No. 19, will devote only around 20 hours of its time in receiving submissions from growers and the public in eight cane growing districts over a period of six days. And that too when growers are lacking knowledge on the more than draconian features of the Bill which hasn’t been publicised and not even translated into the i-Taukei and Hindi languages.

Is this Government’s version of common and equal citizenry that is supposed to provide equal opportunities to all?

Sugar Industry Act

The Bill seeks to repeal the Sugar Industry Act of 1984, which was a product of widespread consultation, negotiation and consensus building before it was tabled in the House of Representatives and agreed to both by the then Alliance Government led by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and the Opposition National Federation Party led by Siddiq Moidin Koya (SM Koya) in a truly bipartisan manner.

The Act recognised the importance of the largest stakeholders of the industry — canegrowers, thereby creating an umbrella body, the Sugar Cane Growers Council that was a fully democratised institution.

The Act also made provision for the Master Award, which came into force in 1990. But it inherited the Denning Award, awarded to canegrowers by Lord Denning after impressive submissions in 1969 from their then leader A D Patel, who was also the founder leader of the NFP. Mr S M Koya ably supported him.

The Denning Award ensured equality, dignity and justice for canegrowers.

The FijiFirst Government have time and again accused, albeit frivolously, the current NFP leadership of undermining the achievements and vision of its founder leaders. Yet, this Government is destroying the legacy, achievements, vision, and honest hard work of A D Patel and S M Koya by forcing this Bill down the throats of growers.

Subjugation

The Sugar Cane Industry Reform Bill demolishes all freedoms, independence, fair play and justice for canegrowers. Every aspect of their livelihood is controlled by the Fiji Sugar Corporation and Government through the Minister for Sugar, who currently happens to be the Prime Minister.

* This Bill is worse than draconian — it is an imposition of another Girmit also on the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the last shipload of Indentured labourers in 1916.

And this very serious issue is not even being explained to growers who are entitled to information regarding the Bill.

Government cannot expect growers to download the Bill from Parliament website and scrutinise because majority of growers do not understand the complexities of issues and depend on their children and most importantly their leaders to explain issues to them.

* This Bill should have been translated into Hindi and i-Taukei languages and widely distributed. There should be a comparison
between the current Bill and what is in the Sugar Industry Act. That is how growers can understand what is in this Bill and what they are losing by way of repealing the Act.

* The Bill is all about rescuing FSC and writing off its debt to Government at the expense of eroding every right of growers. It must be understood that without canegrowers there is no sugar industry or FSC — it is as simple as this.

* The powers of the Tribunal have been diluted. The Tribunal cannot hear disputes between growers and FSC independently of any stakeholders. It can only hear disputes after it has been certified by the Permanent Secretary for Sugar. This means the Government controls and decides what is a dispute and what is not.

This is denial of access to fair hearing and justice. There is no Registrar to the Tribunal as has been the case for 31 years under the Sugar Industry Act.

* The Sugar Cane Growers Council is now a toothless tiger. If this Bill is passed in its current form, the Council changes from a toothless tiger to a puppet of Government because it will be fully controlled by Government.

It will have two members each from three cane producing associations — which were formed to administer Fair Trade only. They are not representative of all growers. Then it will have two Divisional Commissioners and a representative of the Sugar Ministry.

The Minister will appoint the council and the chairman. The council has no role in negotiating sale of sugar. Its role is confined to basic cane cultivation issues. This is unacceptable.

* The Register of Cane Growers is no longer in the hands of the Tribunal. It is with Fiji Sugar Corporation. A registration of a grower can be cancelled by FSC upon the order of the Minister for Sugar. This is the height of politicisation.

* Part 5 of the Bill is like a noose around growers’ necks. The minister for Sugar has powers to revoke the Master Award. The minister then can make the master award in consultation with the FSC and Growers Council.

Both are fully controlled by Government. Where is the voice of growers?

A draft Master Award will be subject to public hearings. It will be a product of Government, FSC and SCGC — all politically controlled. This is like putting the cart before the horse. The current master award, which continues until it is revoked, was a product of public consultation.

It wasn’t a ready-made document as will be the case under this Bill. In his submission to the Economic Affairs Committee last week, the Registrar to the Tribunal revealed that the Quality Cane Payment will come into force next year. This is shocking because growers don’t know about it. It will mean the unilateral revocation of the master award and the current sharing formula of proceeds from the sale of sugar of 70/30 in favour of growers will be abolished.

* The Bill criminalises cane production. Growers are now threatened with fines as fixed penalties of up to $500 for the schedule of offences growers commit. If they refuse to pay the fixed penalties, they can be fined up to $5000 or imprisoned for 12months, or both.

A grower commits an offence if he/she delays harvesting or refuses to plant cane unless he/she gives a 7-day notice to the Permanent Secretary for Sugar.

For example, if due to continuous milling inefficiencies, a grower decides to stop harvesting, it is an offence. A grower must allow the permanent secretary 14 days to rule on the dispute. This means that growers are at the mercy of Government, which has direct control of their livelihood.

* The Sugar Research Institute of Fiji will no longer be an independent body and under this Bill it will be controlled by the FSC.

Rescuing FSC?

The Bill’s intention is to rescue FSC by turning the loans and guarantees by Government into State equity. Government currently has 68 per cent shares in FSC. Minority shareholders own 32 per cent. Government wants to take over all shares and compensate other shareholders by paying them the value of the share price of FSC.

Currently the FSC is technically insolvent. However FSC executive chairman Abdul Khan claims FSC will become profitable in three years because according to him by 2020 the sugar cane crop production will increase to 3.5 million tonnes and sugar production to 437,500 tonnes by ensuring 50,000 hectares of land is used for cane cultivation yielding 80 tonnes per hectare.

He says currently 47,000 hectares is used for cane cultivation. This contradicts the Ministry of Sugar, which said 42,000 hectares was currently used for cane planting while 39,000 lay idle.

Abdul Khan has been the executive chairman for many years. The Annual General Meeting of FSC was held for three years on May 27, 2015. On May 29, 2015, The Fiji Times reported Mr Khan as saying that FSC had “good reasons for not holding an AGM over the last three years and not releasing the information because at the time there was lot of to and fro in the industry and for the company as well”.

“There was talk of divestment, there was talk of share buyback, there were all sorts of talk,” Mr Khan was reported as saying.

He said the Corporation wanted to protect sensitive information because “it would have compromised the position of all the
shareholders, not just the majority shareholders but also minority ones”.

Can Mr Khan inform the people of Fiji of any commercial company or statutory organisation that deliberately delays its AGM for three years because of “to and fro” talks? If FSC can deliberately delay its AGM for three years, what guarantee is there that despite enslaving and controlling canegrowers, it will be able to achieve its targets in 2020?

The answer is a simple NO. Even it would not have happened if the FSC had announced its targets before TC Winston devastated the sugar industry in North Western Viti Levu. This is evident from the industry’s cane and sugar production figures of the last nine years until 2015, eight of which were under the military regime and Bainimarama government.

If Mr Khan’s statistic that currently 47,000 hectares of land is under sugarcane crop then currently only 39.14 tonnes of cane is produced per hectare. Therefore his bold announcement of an 80 tonnes per hectare from 50,0000 hectares of land by 2020 is simply unachievable especially if growers are forced to endure another Girmit under Bill No. 19. FSC also produces cane. Can Mr Khan reveal what is the average tonnage per hectare on FSC farms?

The other issue is whether the minority shareholders who have 32 per cent stake in FSC were consulted before this Bill was tabled in Parliament. Was the Board of FSC aware of this Bill? Were the Sugar Industry Tribunal, Sugar Cane Growers Council and Sugar Research Institute of Fiji aware that their independence was being eroded via a Bill?

Industry in death throes

This Bill will kill the sugar industry. After the coup in December 2006 the military government started interfering with the industry.

As a result cane production has declined by almost 50 per cent. Sugar production has declined by almost 100,000 tonnes.

At a time when growers are trying to recover from the effects of TC Winston, Government must direct all efforts towards helping them. Instead it is sending them back into Girmit 100 years after the arrival of the last indentured labourers in 1916.

The bottom line is cane growers are being stripped of all their rights just to save FSC. The Fiji First government has confirmed through this Bill that growers are sacrificial lambs.