By Raffique Shah
Submitted: July 19, 2016
Published: July 25, 2016
I liberally paraphrase Irish philosopher Edmundd Burke’s injunction to responsible persons to speak out or act when tyranny threatens, to respond to one lie Sat Maharaj peddled when he spewed cobra-like venom against deceased ex-prime minister Patrick Manning, branding him a racist.
I am not defending the late PM’s honour or record as a politician. I’ve already had my say on what I saw as his positives and his negatives. In the aftermath of his passing, the outpouring of emotions and tributes from politicians of every hue and party was such that you’d be forgiven for thinking that Manning used to walk on water.
I not in that! He was as human as we all are, foibles et al. Besides, there are others out there who will tell Sat that he should look into the mirror when he goes racist-hunting.
I feel compelled, though, to debunk the Maha Sabha leader’s charge that closure of the State-owned sugar company Caroni Ltd “crippled the lives of thousands of Indians”, as he put it, implying that it was one of Manning’s racist actions.
He is not the only tribalist who has raised the spectre of racism and political victimisation over Caroni’s closure. Others who know the facts, but who find it politically convenient to plead persecution, have contributed to the mischief so much so that if they are allowed to rewrite history based on their warped minds, the perceived devastation would be likened to the decimation of the American Indians and other indigenous peoples.
But first my bona fides: besides being the son of a sugar worker/cane farmer and having spent my life in the sugar belt, I led the largest cane farmers’ organisation from 1973 until the final closure of the industry in 2007. I was also a director of the company during two critical periods, sat on one Government-appointed tripartite committee (along with Basdeo Panday) that was charged with charting a new course for Caroni, and my interest in agriculture and food security is such that I have compiled an enormous amount of information on the sugar industry and food production.
So I state facts and figures, and I challenge anyone to prove me wrong.
In 2003, when the Manning Government decided shut down Caroni and offer voluntary separation (VSEP) to all its employees, the workers, especially the daily-paid who were members of the All Trinidad union (ATSGWU), welcomed the move as if it were deliverance from a purgatory they had endured for far too long.
There was no resistance, no protest, no march against Manning, no strike, nothing. All the workers wanted to know was how much they would be paid to exit the mess that the sugar industry had become, losing hundreds of millions of dollars year after year, dependent on Government subventions for its wretched survival.
The then president of All Trinidad, Rudy Indarsingh, and his executive, tried to rally the workers to resist the closure. They were roundly cussed, even threatened. Panday, too, tried to dissuade them, but they ignored him.
The Government first offered separation “packages” based on clauses in industrial agreements All Trinidad and the two staff associations had with the company. Such formulae are usually calculated on the basis of wages/salaries and years of service: the longer one’s service and the higher one’s salary, the greater the severance package. By February 2003, when Caroni invited its 9,000 employees to sign up for separation, Government had enhanced the offer by approximately 30 percent, and by August every-man-jack (and woman) had signed up and received a total of $737 million.
To make the parting package even sweeter, Government amended income tax legislation and raised the ceiling for tax exemption on such payments from $100,000 to $300,000.
The workers grabbed the money and fled the failing company. To its credit, All Trinidad would later negotiate for residential lots for all daily-paid workers and two-acre agricultural plots for those interested in food production. The fully-serviced building lots were valued at $300,000-plus each while the two-acre plots are leased and supposedly non-transferable.
The approximately $3.5 billion (cash and land) given to Caroni workers was the biggest severance package ever in T&T. Not a tear was shed and no sugar community collapsed. Indeed, most of the skilled, physically-active workers found alternative employment or invested in businesses. The few who reportedly turned to alcohol were alcoholics while they were on the job-ask their colleagues or neighbours.
An interesting sequel: union president Indarsingh was awarded the Chaconia medal (silver) by Manning in 2005, which he proudly accepted.
Maybe Rudy and Sat would want to explain what the unionist did to earn that one piece of silver from a racist!
(Next week: Caroni was doomed to fail.)