Ram Seegobin, LALIT leading member, spoke to a group of sugar industry factory workers known as "artisans" on Thursday 12 June at the Coromandel trade union centre. His subject was the future of this work sector. His talk was part of a two-day seminar of the Organisation de l'Unite des Artisans which was opened by Toolsiraj Benydin of the Federation of Civil Service and Other Workers' Union, and which would be addressed by other trade union leaders including Reeaz Chuttoo, of the Private Sector Workers' Front (FTSP).
Ram Seegobin began by analyzing the effect on workers of the "reform" of the sugar industry, which has resulted in so many sugar mill closures that there will be just the four "clusters" around the production from brown sugar of refined white sugar, ethanol and electricity. It is possible that Medine, one of the four clusters, may opt out into just Integrated Resort Schemes and other real estate business.
The first effect to bear in mind is that the bosses have built up a "reserve army" of 3,000 skilled artisans, laid off during the reform according to the "blueprint" compensation deal. This means that no sooner will laid off workers have got their bit of land for a house and spent their lump sum than older artisans in work will retire. As they retire, the bosses will be tempted to draw in laid off workers on temporary contracts. This way, artisans, like labourers, will be able to be employed on a seasonal basis, Ram Seegobin warned. Only a strong union can stop this from taking place.
Ram said that this threat should be seen against the back-drop of a systemic crisis resulting from the collapse of the protected sugar regime, as well as a world-wide food crisis. Government has not in the budget been able to control inflation, nor has it reduced the indirect taxes that fall heavily on workers, like the VAT. "Finance Minister Sithanen has taken from the poor to give to the very poor and the rich", Ram Seegobin said of last week's budget.
All these grave problems find the trade union movement, he said, in a very weak situation. With all negotiations being reduced to sectorial level and new laws coming up to do away with the National Remuneration Board, artisans, who will be about 1,500 at the most will have difficult times ahead.
The sector, Ram Seegobin predicted, will be the strongest work sector in the country economic terms. It will be the pivot for the production of refined sugar, ethanol and electricity. And yet, with four different trade unions representing the artisans (three recognized, one not) it will be very difficult. He suggested that artisans set up a "cluster workers' committee" that group together all artisans from all unions, in each of the four cluster areas. This will construct unity from below, from the level of the shop floor, the only form of unity that will work. In time, a common front can be set up, and later amalgamation can become possible. One worker said that the different leaders would not agree, because there would, for example only be one "president". Ram Seegobin said
that the workers will have to impose unity on the leaders.
Ram Seegobin also spoke at length on the importance of the artisans and field labourers also developing unity. He said how in the 1970's the Sugar Industry Labourers' Union and the Union of Artisans of the Sugar Industry had organized joint committees at the level of the sugar estates, and that it was these structures that prepared the way for the fantastic nation-wide strike movement. Workers present remembered these committees in the different areas they come from. The OUA had also participated in that strike [edit: until the leader, Alex Rima, sold out]. Ram Seegobin said how this unity of labourers and artisans because of the history of ethno-religious divides in work sectors was critical to preventing this division of workers.
The debate afterwards was of the highest level, with workers being interested in the future of their work-sector and of the working class as a whole, rather than in the run-of-the-mill industrial issues that often haunt trade union meetings.