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Duckenfield shopowners left holding IOUs as sugar money evaporates INGRID BROWN, Senior staff reporter browni@jamaicaobserver.com Friday, February 06, 2009 This is the third of a FIVE-PART SERIES looking at life in communities where sugar was once king, but in which the government-owned factories are about to change hands. AT 'crop time', rum bars in the town square of Duckenfield in St Thomas would be abuzz every fortnightly payday with cane cutters rewarding themselves with a drink after a back-breaking two weeks in the canefields.duckenfield In other parts of the town square, some operators like the owner of this shop can no longer keep their shutters up as businesses are hard hit by the fallout in the sugar industry. (Photos: Lionel Rookwood) It is the day that shopkeepers would be paid for the groceries credited two weeks prior, and sugar workers' children would meet them in the town square to collect lunch money and a little treat. Then everybody did brisk business - from the dry goods vendor to the wayside cook-shops and the town's butcher. However, all that has since changed in a community where hundreds of sugar workers have been out of work since last September and the town centre is a virtual ghost town. Shopkeepers and bartenders on Wednesday this week sat expectantly around counters, hoping for a stranger to pass by and spend some money as many of their long-time customers - workers at Duckenfield sugar factory - were no longer buying. Many sugar workers had accumulated large debts they were planning on settling with the promised redundancy payments. Failing that, they were hopeful the deal would have gone through for the Brazilian company Infinity Bio-Energy to buy the five Government-owned sugar factories and bring some security to their jobs. However, with the change of the factories from Government to private sector now at a stalemate, many were uncertain when they would get back to work in the fields and factory - the only jobs they have known for decades.

 

 St thomas sugar factoryHopeton Nelson (right) speaks about how the changes in the sugar industry have impacted on his Duckenfield community as a group of cane cutters, who show up daily at the factory to enquire about the production start-up date, listen. News that the factory would open soon, albeit a month late, had given the 1,012 workers a glimmer of hope, but this was short-lived as a new requirement implemented at the factory has been causing greater levels of despair, not only for sugar workers but the entire community. Those who will be employed when the factory mills begin grinding cane later this month will be required to have an account at one of two commercial banks in the parish capital of Morant Bay to which their salaries will be sent instead of being paid in cash as was the norm. They will also need a Tax Registration Number (TRN) and to get this they must have their birth certificate. This is the worst news they could have received as many of them were never registered. "A number of these big men don't even know when them born, so how them going to get birth certificate fi get TRN," said Hopeton Nelson. He claimed that of the 560 cane cutters, at least 40 per cent were illiterate and rely on others to sign for their wages. The elderly men, he said, would be robbed as many do not know how to get around the busy Morant Bay town to get registered for a TRN.

 

dayton smith Quenea and Dayton Smith, two business operators in the Duckenfield town square, sit in front of their shop hoping that a customer will show up. For those already with a TRN, travelling 15 miles to the parish capital and spending $260 on taxi fare would also be a challenge. Nelson, who was among a small group working to repair the factory, said he had already experienced the inconvenience of the new system. "Last week some man trust (credited) rides to Morant Bay and all 8:00 clock people down de a wait fi dem money and it no reach till four days later," he told the Observer. Business operators also had concerns as they feared that the sugar workers would now spend their money in Morant Bay instead of supporting them. A bar operator, who gave her name only as 'Quenea', said she was already seeing the effects as some of her customers now stop to have a drink in Morant Bay before coming home. She said that in time past she would make $20,000 each fortnight but now would be lucky if she sold $2,000 worth of goods. Grocery shops are even more affected as shopkeepers said they were left holding IOUs from sugar workers who have been out of a job since last September. One shopkeeper said she took a bank loan to restock her shop when creditors failed to pay but now has been unable to meet the loan obligations. The town's butcher, who had stocked up with 220 pounds of beef last week, filled an order for 100 pounds and has been left holding the remainder. "One time meat shop woulda full so till you haffi stay outside and call out loud fi you order because yu couldn't get inside because of how it pack," said Quenea. Meanwhile, Nelson said the community's growth would be stifled if the hundreds of persons were not called back to work. For many residents of the deep rural community it has been a sense of hopelessness. Calvin Reid has been working in sugar since 1988 and has never seen the sugar industry so sour. The pay was always small and the work back-breaking for cane cutters but he could feed his family and send his children to school. Now he can do neither but was hopeful his name would be on the list of those to be re-employed. "Things really rough me can't even describe it," he told the Observer, as he returned from making his umpteenth trip to the factory to enquire about a start-up date. He said he was hoping to be on the list if he is to keep his children in school and fulfil a dream that they will never have to work in sugar. It is a struggle since his children can only attend school three days a week. One very irate cane cutter, evidently overcome with frustration, said his only interested was getting his redundancy money. "Them trying to turn women into prostitute because dem not going to sit down and see them children hungry and a suffer and no do nothing about it," he said. His words held some truth as one unemployed woman whose child travels miles away to get to school said she has had to resort to doing just that to find the required $700 a day for her child. So eager were the residents for work that many have not sought to find out the terms on which they would be employed, including the possibility of getting health insurance in an industry where someone is injured daily. "Last week a guy who was working on the crane fell off and broke his back and him have nothing fi get because them say him was on contract," said one worker. But for now they are keeping their fingers crossed.







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