Jul 14, 2013 News
“The rush always on to finish the job and meet the target so that one can leave the hot and sunny cane field. You can’t rest—If you rest, you leave back—you hustle to done to come away. This is one job you don’t idle on…more you idle, the more long you will leave in the back dam.”
By Leon Suseran
Cutting cane is back-breaking work. Only those who have ventured into that area know the pains, strains and physical and mental exhaustion associated with the job. Thousands of cane cutters are employed by the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) and among the thousands is a very dedicated and persevering human being whom we have chosen to feature.
Parsaram Lallbehari is in love with cutting cane. It has been his lifeblood
for the past 37 years! And even though he has been made fun of by his peers and friends; even though he has been pressed hard by his wife and family to quit the hard, tough job; even though he sees others making quite much more money from easier pursuits— through it all, Lallbehari has refused to give up. When he joined the company almost four decades ago, he saw a future for himself and his family in the business of cutting cane.
Parsaram Lallbehari was born at Bloomfield, Corentyne, to Kurchand and Phulmattie. As a young boy, he played ball with his brothers and friends.
“Whole day we lash soft ball and we come home and eat dinner and sleep…then we use to work.”
He had quite a difficult upbringing since his mother was seriously challenged to provide for her eleven children. His father was an alcoholic and always out of a job. It was these factors, too, that forced the kids out of school at tender ages, whereby the five brothers were forced to find work to assist their mother.
“Abbe go estate and hustle to get paper.”
The paper he spoke about was the written approval from the estate to begin work as cane harvesters. “You had to get ‘lines’ to get de paper…whole day you there and then de men sorry for you and then you get through..”
He also recalled seeing his mother doing a lot of hard work such as planting rice and weeding in the backdams in those days, just to provide for her children.
“We all went and help she with the work…my father used to drink…he never work. That was hard on she, to take care of eleven children.” Another brother used to try to supplement the family’s income by doing guttering for people in the area.
Parsaram related that he began working at the Albion Estate at the tender age of 18. This started what would be a long and arduous journey – spending many days in the cane fields and enduring some of the harshest weather. He started off by earning $200 per week. “Hard work—7-day work and you used to work for $200 – plenty, plenty money in dem days!” he stated.
It was during this period when he met Jasmattie and they got married in 1979. He recalled going to the cinema with her and becoming closer. The union bore 5 kids: Diana, Veena, Kavita, Omesh and Naresh.
“Cane cutting work is bad work…you get good cane and you work for good money,” he stated, but he had nothing else to do. But he was determined not to leave. His brothers all migrated but he remained in Guyana and on the job.
Lallbehari stated that working back in those days was memorable.
“Then was good times…not what you face now, we didn’t face that in dem days.” He added that there was a different mindset by management back then as opposed to what obtains today in the troubled sugar industry.
Our ‘Special Person’ boasted at the fact that he was always a dedicated and hard worker. He qualified for all his benefits, meaning that he always fulfilled work for the stipulated amount of required work-days. As a result, he received all his benefits such as back-pay, increases, etc.
A typical work day, he stated, begins at 4:00am. His wife gets up early and prepares breakfast. He related that he eats breakfast around 4:20am and then he showers; gets dressed and leaves for the road.
“The truck would come at 5:05am and collect you and you gone.”
He credits his wife as being very supportive while he pursued this career choice, especially as it entails her getting up from bed very early every day.
“I get my meal on time”, he reflected with a look of admiration for his wife.
Jasmattie emphasised that her husband does not like to be late for work or to miss the truck.
According to Lallbehari, upon arrival in the cane fields, “you book your name to the foreman and then he give us the work.” He explained that the work of cutting the cane for that day is shared among the more than 200 cane cutters turning up for work at that particular location. He and his four workmates – ‘Marky’, ‘Cabbage’, ‘Car’, and ‘Marvin’-
to whom he refers as his ‘partners’, get their tasks and then go to work.
The faster they finish the task, the earlier they can pack up and go home, he said. He and his ‘partners’ usually finish around 11:00 am. The job entails cutting the cane, loading the punt and “leaving it right there and you gone.”
Lallbehari said that there are no ‘breaks’ or ‘time- outs’ and many of the workers are accustomed to this.
“The rush always on to finish the job and meet the target so that one can leave the hot and sunny cane field. You can’t rest—If you rest, you leave back- you hustle to done to come away. This is one job you don’t idle on…more you idle, the more long you will leave in the back dam.”
He also dispelled the supposition and notion that cane cutters cannot really make it in life. He is eagerly awaiting his pension which will happen in a few years, “God spare life in the next six years.”
Lallbehari does not smoke but admits to taking a drink now and again. “I rather leave the rum and go to my work…I don’t follow friends and encourage them to drink and sport—I do my work.”
When asked what is hard about the job, the first word that came to his mind was “weight.” Lallbehari said that on any given work-day he would have fetched more than 80 bundles of cane on his shoulders. ”The weight—when yuh two knees gone, you done….My waist does hurt me.” He said that his son regularly massages his head and skin. “People don’t know the hardship of the work—who go through it knows it!”
He said that working in the cane fields is as exciting as it is dangerous. He regularly encounters reptiles such as snakes and alligators, and reassuringly asserts “but it’s nothing serious”. He also remembered an occasion when he cut himself. “I got cut with my cutlass….the cutlass fell and it cut me…over 20 years ago.”
Lallbehari commented on the Champion Workers’ Awards that the industry hosts annually for outstanding employees. He opined that the workers in the field should be awarded these accolades and should be the ones who the sugar industry recognizes more often.
Not surprisingly, Lallbehari was honoured at GuySuCo’s Honours Roll Function not once but twice: in 2010 and again this year, where he was awarded Second Runner- up. He also received $50,000. In 2010, he won a trip to Lake Mainstay with his wife.
He admits feeling burnt out some days and not feeling like getting
up to go to work.
“Yuh feel like your body gets so tired that yuh don’t want to go to work—but then yuh ask yuhself, if you don’t go to work, how yuh will make the 18-tonnes of cane… and when yuh absent from work; yuh don’t make nothing.” He mentioned that making the 18- tonne mark earns him extra salary in terms of incentives.
“If yuh work for $20,000 and yuh get $14,000 from yuh incentive, yuh make some good money.”
There are other tonne-per-pay incentives, he pointed out, such as 10 and 18.5 tonnes. “Every week we make the target”, he said.
He has to get up from his warm bed, whether it is rain or sun, “yuh got to face it—lightning, thunder; I put on my cloak and gone… leave the house.”
Should he get thirsty on the job, the ‘water- fetcher’ is always standing by to bring relief to cane cutters. This supplements the bottles filled with water that workers take from home.
Lallbehari has worked in several locations in Berbice including Canje, East Bank Berbice, Skeldon, and of course, Albion, giving him much exposure. When asked about the remuneration and salary packages for cane cutters, he had this to say:
“Honestly, it is too small. Cane cutters need more money. Cane cutting work—someone supposed to work for $60,000 per week…this is why a lot of people leaving the job and running away from the job. That’s why they always looking to employ people….people leaving the job and not notifying them—going to contract work which would pay more.”
Lallbehari is of the opinion that cutting cane is the “hardest job in Guyana.”
“When you cut cane, all over your body got to work and when you fetch the cane—you put on a bundle – 100 pounds—and you make 80 bundles…multiply that by 100…a man does fetch over 3 tonnes of cane per day on his head.”
He added, too, that his head is in a lot of pain every day after he comes home, “and I soak my head with oil…it burn like pepper.” But overall he is doing very well health-wise.
“I don’t have sick on my body…I don’t go see doctor and so.” However, he recently had a cataract removed and he is seeing much better these days.
And there is no rest, too, even during the out-of-crop period. He engages in hand- weeding work in the cane fields and estate. He admitted on second thought that this job is more difficult than cutting cane.
“We weed canal to canal…two, three beds…..that’s hard…I rather cut my cane than to go and do that work… But what can you do? I thank God when cane is cutting…just to go back on my job.”
“I like this kind of work…cutting cane. I only get six years more and God spare life, I will do it.”
He didn’t forget to compliment his employer.
“GuySuCo work is the best work…than any industry that you think about.”
He is well aware of the problems being faced by the industry and credits this to the ‘big ones’ at the top. “They don’t think for the workers…they don’t care for the small man.” “Nobody encouraging the workers—but estate work is the best work….”
Lallbehari has even encouraged his sons to join the industry, “you can get fired any time from any company, but [the] estate don’t fire you like that.”
“None young youth can cut cane…dem boys does work one crop and get away…they too soft”, he said with a smile.
He is presently completing some major renovations to his home – the fruit of his labour in the cane fields. One of his sons will be getting married shortly and the family is busy with preparations for that too.
It is men like Parsaram Lallbehari, and the thousands of others who toil daily in the cane fields, on whose shoulders the success of the sugar industry literally rests, and this indeed qualifies him as a ‘Special Person’.
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