AN industrial action by employees of Chiredzi-based sugar producer, Tongaat Hulett Zimbabwe, has conspired with other factors to trigger a shortage of sugar during the festive holidays.
Workers at Tongaat Hulett Zimbabwe downed their tools on November 27 following the company’s refusal to award them a pay rise.
Three weeks down the line, the job action has spawned a huge deficit of the product, which is causing prices to spike.
Retailers across the country have already started rationing sugar as they anticipate the shortages to persist.
A survey by the Financial Gazette revealed that retailers have been getting limited supplies of the product ever since the industrial action started, and are selling a maximum of eight kilogrammes per customer in southern parts of the country.
The sugar crisis has been worsened by government’s recent decision to ban sugar imports as it sought to protect and boost capacity in the local sugar sector.
Also, Tongaat Hulett had reportedly reduced sugar output for the half year period ending September 30, 2015 due to poor growing conditions.
The company has also forecast further decrease in sugar production to between 410 000 tonnes and 445 000 tonnes for the full year to March 31, 2016, as a result of lower cane yields by both the sugar milling estates and the private farmers.
Sugar is of significant importance to the country’s economy as it impacts many livelihoods and many industrial manufacturing processes.
The dwindling local sugar supplies mean that many households may spend Christmas without the product.
Tongaat employs about 16 000 employees.
The workers are demanding a 105 percent increase in wages from the current US$170 per month to US$350, which is still far below the poverty datum line of about US$500 per month.
The workers are arguing that their demands are in line with what other Tongaat Hulett employees in the region are earning.
Tongaat Hulett has other subsidiaries in South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique.
Workers in Swaziland are said to be earning about US$400, while South Africa and Mozambique are paying R6 000 and US$480, respectively.
Relations between management and the workers have been worsened by the company’s adamant position on the matter, arguing that its minimum wage of US$170 remains competitive in the country’s agricultural industry.
The workers, mainly from lower grades, have vowed to continue with their strike after the parties’ conciliatory proceedings, under the supervision of the Public Services, Labour and Social Welfare Ministry, so far failed to achieve a settlement.
The parties have failed to break the deadlock, a situation that has paralysed operations at the sugar producing giant.
Tongaat Hullet operations consist of Triangle and a 50,3 percent stake in Hippo Valley Estates.
The company also owns sugar mills in Zimbabwe’s lowveld region, which have a combined installed milling capacity of more than 4,8 million tonnes of cane annually and over 640 000 tonnes of sugar.
The Tongaat Hulett workers are also embroiled in a dispute with the company after it refused to stop remitting their monthly contributions to the Zimbabwe Sugar Milling Workers Union (ZISMIWU), from which they recently quit en masse.
Most employees have since joined the Sugar Production and Milling Industry Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe.
ZISMIWU has been put under administration by Public Services, Labour and Social Welfare Minister, Prisca Mupfumira, over a raft of allegations that include flouting the Labour Act and ZISMIWU’s own constitution; using union funds to support political activities; failure to comply with statutory remittances to the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority and the National Social Security Authority; absence of a union asset register; and extension of loans and salary advances to executive members, staff and the National Employment Council staff.
Fearing for the worst, Tongaat Hulett’s corporate affairs and communications manager, Adelaide Chikunguru, this week said the company has engaged striking workers with the aim to end the job action.
“. . . Tongaat Hulett operations in Zimbabwe, wish to advise their valued stakeholders that engagement efforts with ZISMIWU are underway,” said Chikunguru, who added: “This follows various processes to end the collective job action and create opportunities for dialogue between the company and employee representatives. The Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare is leading the engagement efforts between the parties.
“The company remains hopeful for a positive and mutually beneficial outcome. Tongaat Hulett reaffirms its commitment to ensuring a mutually beneficial and positive outcome from the engagement process. Meanwhile, the collective job action continues with isolated incidents of vandalism having been recorded.”Phillimon Mhlanga/Fingaz