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Minister Mai Weighs in on the Plight of the Cane Farmers

The Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA) and Belize Sugar Industries/American Sugar Refinery, (BSI/ASR) remain at an impasse over the collective bargaining agreement. BSCFA wants to make significant amendments to the collective bargaining agreement and BSI/ASR is hesitant. Top representatives from the BCSFA who represent more than three thousand cane farmers have met with Agriculture Minister, Abelardo Mai and now the group has asked for an audience with Prime Minister John Briceno. In the letter dated October 12, Chairman of the BSCFA Marciano Novelo reminds PM Briceno of the association’s request to present its position on the impasse. Novelo tells Briceno that the association and its members are becoming increasingly frustrated by BSI’s attitude to its request for the negotiation of the new commercial agreement. We asked Minister Mai for feedback and an update on the current situation.

Jose Abelardo Mai, Minister of Agriculture, Food Security and Enterprise: “Their complaint is that BSI has not been forthcoming, that they have refused to meet with them and I think they wanted to meet with the Prime Minister to explain this to the Prime Minister. This is strictly an arrangement between the millers and the producers/cane farmers. Now you will understand that there are more than one associations. BSCFA is the association that is leading the charge on wanting to make changes to the commercial agreement. The other associations have reported that because of COVID they were unable to go out and consult with their members and therefore they would they I think would have to stand by the existing agreement; maybe a few modifications I think from seven years they want five years but they have not requested for any substantial change on the commercial agreement. BSCFA is saying they want changes in it, BSI has also said that they want to make addendums to the agreement but again that is where we are today. If the Prime Minister will meet with them this week is only the Prime Minister’s office can answer to that. I’ve met with them a number of times.”

Three other cane farmers’ associations have signed a five-year commercial agreement with BSI/ASR and the factory will not accept cane from farmers who don’t have a bargaining agreement. BSCFA says it would like to negotiate such an agreement before signing it. Minister Mai says the priority is protecting the sugar industry.

Jose Abelardo Mai, Minister of Agriculture, Food Security and Enterprise: “The government has to play a very important role here in trying to ensure that the crop begins but this week we’ll also sit down with BSI and the associations to try to reach to a compromise. I think that in negotiations you will never get everything, somebody has to compromise. We hope that wisdom here will prevail and that some sort of commitment will be reached and that we can begin the crop as we always do in December. That is where we are today.”

Reporter: Is it a high number of cane farmers that have contention, that have issues ? 

Jose Abelardo Mai, Minister of Agriculture, Food Security and Enterprise: “You will recall that under the previous administration the same matter arose, the commercial agreement and the farmers were unwilling to begin the crop – well the farmers wanted to begin the crop they wanted a change. BSI said they would not begin the crop until the farmers would sign the agreement that was when the Prime Minister went to the house and changed the law and therefore other associations were formed and therefore divide on conquer. Our government will ensure that both parties are treated fairly, both the cane farmers and the millers because we have a social obligation to the farmers but we also have with BSI to ensure that they’re treated fairly but we will not allow BSI to silence the cane farmers and neither the cane farmers to silence BSI. So we want a good agreement, a good commitment from both sides that will be fair, and transparent to everybody.”