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.