Union sparks debate
17 May, 2016, 12:00 am
THE sugar industry is in the dismal state that it’s in because of the removal of institutions that ensured transparency and also because of the disempowerment of farmers.
This was the submission made by National Farmers Union general secretary and former prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry to the Standing Committee on Economic Affairs during consultations on the Reform of the Sugar Cane Industry Bill in Lautoka last week.
Mr Chaudhry said the dismal performance since the dismantling of institutions that gave farmers a voice in the industry — such as the Sugar Commission of Fiji and Sugar Cane Growers Council board — was evident in the downturn in cane production.
“There is absolutely no doubt, that the changes initiated were politically motivated to dismantle democratic institutions, and more importantly, to curb the influence of trade unions and their leaders,” he said.
“The irony is that in doing so, they caused serious damage to the industry and put its future viability at risk.”
Mr Chaudhry cited statistics from Fiji Sugar Corporation’s annual reports from the 80s and 90s and said the industry was once vibrant and prosperous.
“Annual cane production used to exceed four million tonnes from which between 420,000-450,000 tonnes of sugar was made: twice exceeding the half a million mark in the years 1986 and 1994. Tonnes cane to tonnes sugar (TCTS) ranged from 7.8 to 9.04.
“FSC had a workforce of over 3000 at peak crushing time. There were around 20,000 active canegrowers and between 12-15,000 cane cutters.
“Raw sugar accounted for about 25 per cent of Fiji’s total exports and 12 per cent of its GDP. Almost 65,000 hectares of land was under cane.
“As late as 2006, despite the serious problem of non-renewal of cane leases, we produced 3.2 million tonnes of cane and 310,000 tonnes of sugar.”
He said the years 2010 through to 2013 could be labelled the worst in the history of the sugar industry.
“In 2012, we crushed 1.5m tonnes of cane, converted to 155,000 tonnes sugar. Earnings dipped to a low of $186m.”
FSC executive chairman Abdul Khan said Mr Chaudhry was not being truthful when comparing the industry under his leadership to its heyday in the 80s and 90s.
“We have not been able to get sugarcane production up, that is true but that’s not because of Government, FSC or the growers.
“It’s because of natural disasters that neither you or I can control,” he said.
“You did not mention that we went through two droughts before we went through Tropical Cyclone Winston.”
Mr Khan said rather than reflecting on the past, the only way forward was for the industry to work cohesively together and look to the future.