Beacon of the day | Arlene Thomas – a champion for the rights of sugar workers and farmersJanuary 25, 2021
Arlene Thomas didn’t fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a lawyer, but she is often made to feel like one – perhaps one bearing the ‘Queen’s Counsel’ trappings.
On a daily basis, she represents hundreds of small farmers and workers in the sugar industry in and around her native Lluidas Vale district, St. Catherine.
She is the Chief Union Delegate for the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) at Worthy Park Sugar Estate in Lluidas Vale.
Since 2018, Thomas also has been serving as Chairman of the Worthy Park Cane Farmers Association. In that post, she lobbies for hundreds of small cane farmers in Clarendon and parts of St. Catherine – including the Spanish Town, Linstead, and Lluidas Vale areas.
Thomas’ contribution is not confined to the sugar industry. She previously served as Chairman of the Lluidas Vale Community Development Committee, and as Vice Chairman of the Juan de-Bolas Primary School board.
She is driven by her love for people and community. “You may not have a good college education, but you can still go out there and make a difference,” Thomas noted.
She volunteers without hesitation, she said, although her roles in the sugar industry are sometimes thankless.
“Some workers are not grateful [for the effort that goes into negotiations], but I enjoy doing it,” Thomas added.
Negotiations are not always easy, especially considering that the sugar industry is no longer highly attractive to the people Thomas represents.
She cited local and international factors, including changes to the European Union Sugar Regime, which effectively slashed local earnings from sugar.
She added that many small farmers went out of business because they did not get a third payment in 2018, consequent on the financial woes that hit Jamaica Cane Products Sales Limited.
Thomas also emphasized: “Farmers don’t get pay for the tonnes of cane they sell; they get pay for the amount of sugar that comes out of the cane. I can sell 30 tonnes of cane and the payment I get can’t even pay the persons who cut the cane… I think Worthy Park can also afford to pay its workers a better package.”
Notwithstanding the shortcomings, Thomas pointed to a bit of proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
She said: “For a couple of years, the price of sugar was down, and it is up this year again.”
She further stated that Worthy Park Estate recently brought its minimum wage to $8,000 per week, reflecting a voluntary increase by $600. That was achieved after a protest by workers and a protracted negotiation at the Ministry of Labour.
Thomas told The Beacon that, notwithstanding the challenges, it is paramount for good sense to prevail, considering that the sugar industry remains the lifeblood of the economy in places such as Lluidas Vale.
“I am encouraging farmers to go back into cane planting because, if we allow the industry to go down in this section of St. Catherine, we are going to be in a doom situation,” she reasoned.
“If small farmers don’t have cane to sell to the estate, the estate alone can’t produce the cane they want to make the amount of sugar needed. It will not be viable for them to continue employing about 700 persons that keep the community alive.”
Thomas’ affinity with the sugar industry is no surprise.
She was raised walking distance away from Worthy Park Estate, where she now works as a core operator – testing the quality of the cane that is brought into the factory.
Thomas has been working at the estate for 31 consecutive years, starting January 24, 1990. She also previously did a much shorter stint there.
She told The Beacon that, when she is not at work or at the negotiation table, she is engrossed in one of her many hobbies – watching cricket or basketball, reading, or cooking.
Thomas, the mother of five children, was born to Delretta Mitchell of Lluidas Vale and Aston Thomas from Kingston. Her father ended up at Lluidas Vale due the nature of his job with the then Public Works Department.
Thomas has remained at Lluidas Vale – except for a relatively short period when she resided in St. Mary when her father was transferred there.
She is a past student of Lluidas Vale Primary School, Castleton Primary in St. Mary, and Ewarton High School in St. Catherine.
Thomas also enrolled at the College of Agriculture Science and Education, but she did not complete her studies.
“My mother was a domestic helper and my father said he could not afford the college tuition,” Thomas said.
She added that, despite not completing college, she is proud of the impact she has been able to make.
Asked how she eventually would like to be remembered in her community, Thomas said: “I would like to be remembered just as a caring person who is willing to fight for her community and for the workers at large.”
By Horace Mills, Journalist
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