‘Nothing to panic about’

SUGAR Ministry permanent secretary Yogesh Karan says the proposal to bring in foreigners to harvest cane will only be considered if the Fijian labour force is unable to meet the demand.

“The option to bring in any foreign workforce will only be considered if we face a shortage of local labour,” he said.

“There is nothing to panic about at this stage.”

He was responding to claims made by sugarcane farmers in Ba that they were being held at ransom by local cutters.

Prominent Ba farmer Arun Sharma had claimed growers in hilly areas were facing stiff hire rates this harvest season because of the announcement by Government to import labourers.

“We went out earlier this month to negotiate with labourers in Tailevu-Naitasiri where we normally source our cutters and they said their rate had gone up from $20 per tonne to $24 and even more,” he said.

“When we asked them the reason for the increase, they said it’s because Government was bringing cutters from overseas and paying them a lot of money and for that reason, they were demanding a 25 per cent increase.

“The Tailevu-Naitasiri labourers said they felt sidelined by Government and the industry.

“This has really put us in limbo because we need to secure cutters now.

“But everyone is scared that if we pay goodwill or part of their fee now, we could lose out if the labourers demand for more or if Government brings in overseas labourers at a lower cost.”

Mr Karan assured growers and labourers that Government had the best interest of the industry at heart and no decision would be taken that would have a negative impact on any stakeholder.

“Government has not sidelined anyone,” he said.

In January this year, Government announced plans to bring in foreign nationals from sugar-producing countries to harvest cane.

The idea was floated in a bid to address labour shortage issues which had resulted in mill stoppages and increased costs for growers over the past few years.

However, the proposal drew criticism from canegrowers representative organisations and sections of the public with concerns raised about border security issues at the forefront of their concerns.