Sugar Strike Cripples Tower Hill
Tonight, the strike by cane farmers at the Tower Hill sugar factory in Orange Walk remains in effect. As we first reported last night, cane farmers stopped delivering cane to the factory in protest of a machine called a core sampler – which tests the quality of the cane that’s coming in. And it also introduces a new pricing formula based on the quality of the cane, not just how much it weighs. So some are making more and some are making less and now all of them are on strike. It couldn’t have come at a worse time because this is the height of production at the factory. 7NEWS went to Tower Hill and Keith Swift reports.
Keith Swift Reporting,
Today the chimneys at the Tower Hill Factory belched plumes of smoke in the Sky above Orange Walk. And while the factory seems to be up and running, things are far from normal here at Tower Hill. Sugar cane farmers are on strike and most of them have stopped delivering cane to the factory. That has crippled production.”
Eloil Navarro, Cane Farmer
“We are not delivering cane. The general membership decided at a general meeting that by right of them, that they are not going to start to deliver cane until this can be negotiated and straightened out.”
And by this - there are referring to this new piece of equipment called the core sampler. It is quite simply - supposed to take a sample from each load of cane brought to the factory to check for quality – but cane farmers say it’s been cutting them short.
Carlos Pott, Cane Farmer
“We don’t want that core sampler now because it depends on our quality but now cane farmers are getting about $20 to $21 more and we don’t want that because some are getting $28 and some are getting $40 for the quality. That is why we don’t want it because we want a flat price.”
So you’re getting less?
“Yes we are getting less money with that core sampler.”
Thomas Cawich, Cane Farmer
“We want the core sampler to go.”
“The example is that a farmer delivers his cane clean, mature cane, and the results came to a low sucrose content and other trips loaded with mechanical loading, shows a better sucrose.”
“They say that if we sell quality cane it is a better price but now it is different because that is not business now and growing cane is a big big work for the cane farmers.”
Solomon Pott, Cane Farmer
“We are not agreeing with the system that we have, the core sampler. First of all because they are not working as we want to work because we have different kind of payment. So we want to ask BSI or anyone who is in charge for the core sampler to be suspended.”
But Belize Sugar Industries’ Finance Director Belizario Carballo says cane farmers shouldn’t hold their breaths.
Belizario Carballo, Finance Director – Belize Sugar Industries
“Farmers say it is the system BSI is implementing or BSI wants it because it is a BSI system. It is not like that. The system will be beneficial to BSI but it will also be beneficial to the farmers because the endgame is for us to have more sugar and better quality sugar.”
BSI doesn’t actually own or run the core sampler but Carballo says shrinking markets and profits demand its use.
Belizario Carballo, Director of Finance
“We have been tasked with preparing the industry to be more competitive and one of the biggest challenges we face is really the quality of cane; the quality of the raw material coming in. In every serious industry around the world that is efficient in the production of sugar, there is a system of payment based on quality. It is not new for Belize. Belize I think is one of the only remaining countries that is still paying based on weight and that was a clear part of the strategy going forward, to move to a system of payment based on quality. It is a system that is intended to reward those who deliver better quality cane.
The new system is one that we will pay farmers based on their individual quality of cane they deliver and based on the quality of their cane as compared to the quality of cane that other farmers are delivering in any particular week. So it is a system of relative quality. And so in that system, by its very nature, there will be those who will be getting paid more than the average and there will be those who are getting paid below the average.”
Carballo says the strike shut down operations yesterday and today enough trucks dropped off cane to start up the mill.
“On a day like this where it is sunny and nice and we are supposed to be doing well in terms of production, we are not producing and so it is affecting. On most days we would accept about 6,000 tons of cane and of that produce about 600 tons of sugar. So in terms of dollars and cents, at the current prices of about $1,000 per ton – it is $600,000 that is an opportunity cost that the industry on a whole is suffering.”
Suffering that will continue since these farmer say they won’t be moved – which means the billowing clouds of smoke into Orange Walk’s sky may be gone until there is a resolution.
So as of tonight the strike stands. Representatives from the Cane Farmers Association met with Agriculture Minister Rene Montero this afternoon but there was no final resolution. A meeting of the Sugar Cane Quality Control Authority will begin at 7:30 this evening and it is hoped the matter will be resolved there. If not, then it will go to the Sugar Industry Control Board. But until then – the strike remains in effect.
We must mention that this is week 7 of the roughly 30 weeks of production of the factory. Also note worthy is that BSI says that during those first 7 weeks, only 6% of the farmers are receiving less than the average price. We must also note that last year was one of the worst for the sugar industry. Only 78,000 tons of sugar were exported, down considerably from the 97,000 tons in 2007.