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Sugar  |  Sugar

Last updated: 05 November 2010

Sugar Workers and the Captains of Industry Clearly Live on Different Planets


Few who have heard directly from sugar workers in the field about their daily work life, could depart without feelings of enduring respect. The tasks are demanding, the protective clothing is heavy, it is hot, and the time limits are unflintchingly driven by key performance indicators at the mill. The truck arrives at time x, departs and arrives at the mill at time y, for black field workers there is no way to escape or skimp, as everything gets measured and gets done. Once the cane is loaded into the mill at time z, with somewhat less sugar than when it arrived, every millilitre is sucked out and every gram of fibre used. Mill production managers tweaking a tricky production process look stressed, whilst, far away, the greatest sense of calm and space is deep within the palatial Tongaat-Huletts head office.


Although EU sugar reforms resulting in less preferential prices for ACP countries, have not actually been implemented yet, from the time of their announcement in 2004 onwards, sugar companies in Swaziland have responded to their anticipated impact and are positioning themselves to sell larger volumes of raw sugar at lower prices at distant EU markets. The impact on workers and worker families in Swaziland has been heavy, whether through loss of income or through loss of access to social services provided by companies. Many workers have been shifted from permanent to seasonal, with fewer benefits, and contracting is on the increase.

The Sugar Action Plan for Swaziland, accepts as fait accompli that EU sugar reforms will take place as proposed. In the Action Plan, the influence of the Swaziland Sugar Association in promoting new growth in small-holder sugar-cane farmers is noted. However, at least in Swaziland, unlike South Africa, there is clear information to show that estate farms have considerably higher yields than small and medium scale farms. Based on the information presented to us, massive conversion of estate farms to small-holder farms is not on the cards in Swaziland, possibly because it is understood that this would place the reliability of cane supply to the mills at risk. We had no information on converting estate farms into private commercial farms. However, experience in South Africa shows that a shift to private commercial farms imposes a massive and unacceptable change in working and living conditions on sugar farm workers.

The following draft resolutions are therefore proposed:
  1. Implement a mass campaign to communicate the impact that EU sugar reforms have had on workers and communities in Swaziland. Greater pressure should be brought to bear on the EU to realise the full costs of EU sugar reforms from the time of their announcement, let alone their actual implementation. IUF affiliates could place greater emphasis on understanding EU sugar reforms within the context of an enlarged European Union and could motivate for a less drastic cut in ACP prices than the proposed recurring -37% into the future.
  2. Great care should be exercised to avoid the pitfalls of trade flows being replaced with aid, as the EU manages once off-compensation payments to ACP countries, whilst restructuring the EU sugar industry to become more internationally competitive. Promote estate farms as more decent, sustainable and productive structures than small and medium scale farms, or large scale private commercial farms, in tandem with skills development and employment equity drives.
  3. Co-operate with FAWU and regional IUF affiliates on legal services and legal representation in labour cases.
  4. Make a concerted effort to strengthen local government activities to support job creation and diversification initiatives in the sugar cane belt.
  5. Monitor and communicate the operations and conduct of the Swaziland Sugar Association in order to improve transparency in the conduct of the South African Sugar Association and linked profit making export companies.
South Africa

It is essential to consider industrial structures and systems of regulation and how they change. This applies to the international sugar market (see the Summary of Sugar Action Planning) as well as the domestic markets in South Africa and Southern Africa. The South African sugar industry is likely to experience increased competition from sugar producers located in Swaziland as a result of EU sugar reforms. However, since Illovo sugar has regionalised into SADC countries, the dynamics of competition are now beyond the scope of the South African competition authorities alone.

In prohibiting the TSB-Tongaat Huletts proposed merger in 2000, the South African Competition Tribunal understood that deregulation after considerable State regulation could install private monopolies, much further beyond state control and much less concerned with transformation objectives. As the Illovo Annual Report for 2004/2005 illustrates, Illovo predominantly sells within African domestic markets, takes note when experiencing domestic competition and seeks preferential prices in the EU, SACU, SADC and the USA.

The South African sugar industry is visibly trying hard to achieve transformation in the lower-value/profit growing part of the chain and is, arguably, doing more than other South African agricultural industries that have already been (almost totally) deregulated. Great care is therefore necessary in proposing any amendments to the Sugar Act and Sugar Industry Agreement, since there is pressure to deregulate the industry whilst there is also pressure to improve regulation to achieve better transformation, transparency and fairness in the division of proceeds from the sale and use of sugar and sugar by-products.

One of the biggest problems confronting trade unionism in the sugar industry is access to privately owned farms. One key finding of the research is that it may be all well and good to have minimum wage in South Africa, but employers can vary the work task within the minimum legislated work time. This places a higher occupational health and safety strain on workers and also highlights the milling companies` shift away from direct responsibility for health care on farms and creating a distance in responsibility through outsourcing to small and medium scale growers or using cane contractors. Although many women are employed in land preparation and chemical tasks (e.g. round-up ready knacksack spraying), there is a trade union organisational weakness in representing women, that can, and should, be corrected.

The biggest source of concern for farm workers and mill workers could be the Illovo Associated British Foods proposed merger. Whilst little is known about ABF`s reputation in Europe as an employer, and the IUF is currently working on this, the biggest perceived threat is from the economics of supplying unprocessed sugar to distant markets for refining and value adding. Alternatively, there could be additional pressure on workers at different stages of the chain if investments aim to utilise (cheaper?) sugarcane to compete with petro-chemical companies closer to home.

We therefore offer the following draft resolutions for consideration:

  • Achieve transparency in SASA and the company/s empowered to earn profits on its behalf;
  • Distribute an electronic repository of relevant documentation to all SADC sugar trade unions;
  • Promote women representation in trade union organising and trade union representation;
  • Engage regional sugar companies (i.e. Illovo) to define and implement minimum standards in those parts of the chain that are currently having occupational health and safety impacts on workers (e.g. chemical tasks and cane cutting, hazardous work in mills).
  • Engage Illovo on the possible impact of the proposed ABF merger;
  • Engage Illovo on its HIV/AIDS policy;
  • Deepen understanding on estate farm working and living conditions as compared to small, medium and large scale farm working conditions, with a particular emphasis on remuneration, health, housing, food and water;
  • Co-operate on legal services and representation across the SADC unions;
  • Improve the collective bargaining power of cane-cutters and other individual fixed term contract/seasonal workers (e.g. through forming cooperatives).

[A Consolidated Summary of Research in South Africa and Swaziland By Eric Watkinson, 20 July 2006]