The centre of some of Jamaica’s most violent labour disputes, Frome sugar factory was built in 1938 by British company Tate and Lyle’s subsidiary West Indies Sugar Company, and was at the time the most modern facility in the West Indies. Constructed during a period of high unemployment, it drew job-seekers from across the island in their thousands. Most were unlucky, and even those who were given jobs received a pittance far lower than the salary they’d been promised. Under the fiery leadership of Alexander Bustamante, the workers banded together in protest. The dispute swiftly turned ugly; cane fields were set on fire and a full-scale riot broke out on May 3, 1938. The unrest left four dead from police bullets and one hundred demonstrators, including Bustamante, in jail. Further industrial disputes through the twentieth century ensured that Frome’s volatile reputation for collective bargaining endures.

For years Jamaican sugar was a loss-making enterprise run by the government-owned Sugar Company of Jamaica. The industry’s decline since its 1960s heyday came to the fore with the removal of preferential tariffs to the EU for former colonies in the 2000s – a crippling effect, but deemed to be in the interest of fair and free trade by the World Trade Organization. In reality, Jamaica’s problems were exacerbated by cheaper (and increased) global production, and the country’s inability to invest in technology through three decades of poverty had made its plants obsolete. After a brief, failed flirtation with a Brazilian bio-energy giant, three plants including Frome were finally sold to Chinese firm COMPLANT in 2011, which released much-needed investment for the beleaguered industry. Plans to diversify into other products like ethanol and molasses now generate excitement, but this is offset by fears of re-mechanization with the inevitable loss of hundreds of manual jobs. With food production largely undercut by cheap imports, diversification is limited, and Frome today remains the largest single employer in western Jamaica. Two hundred years after sugar gave the British Empire unprecedented wealth, the bargaining power of organized labour seems to be replaced by Jamaica’s ability to bargain in a world of Chinese expansion and global competition.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

Jamaica features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

In the footsteps of Bob Marley: a tour of Kingston, Jamaica

In the footsteps of Bob Marley: a tour of Kingston, Jamaica

Kris Griffiths takes a tour of the birthplace of reggae, following in the footsteps of Jamaica's most famous son, Bob Marley, on what would have been his 70th …

18 Mar 2015 • Kris Griffiths insert_drive_file Article
19 fantastic spots for wild swimming

19 fantastic spots for wild swimming

1. Cenotes X’keken and Samula, Mexico Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula is riddled with cenotes, natural limestone sinkholes that are perfect for wild swimming. …

04 Oct 2013 • Alison Roberts camera_alt Gallery
The best street food around the world

The best street food around the world

Jerk chicken, Jamaica When it comes to jerk chicken, there’s no beating the real deal fresh from a smoky jerk hut. Recipes are closely guarded secrets, but u…

04 Jul 2013 • Eleanor Aldridge camera_alt Gallery
View more featureschevron_right

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month