Cementing discontent

Last week construction guru, Sir Charles Williams, called for the closure of the Arawak Cement Plant in Checker Hall, St. Lucy. His view is that it has long outlived its usefulness and its presence causes Barbadians to pay more for the building commodity than they would purchasing it on the open market.

Just about the same time some residents of St. Lucy were also complaining about the operation of the plant, charging that poor management of dust and other fine particles furnace were making their lives a living hell.

We don’t know that we know enough of the details of the charges being made by Sir Charles that we are willing to say outright at this junction that we support the closure of the plant. What we will say is that there is more than enough reason and logic in his argument to suggest that Government must examine the issue.

It is the least they can do right now to reassure consumers who are struggling to make ends meet.

At the same time, however, we do not believe we have to put up a case for the residents around the plant. The physical evidence should be enough to tell those who are responsible for environmental protection that they should be on the job in St. Lucy — and not tomorrow, today.

But let’s return to Sir Charles’ position for a moment. He argues that Barbadians are subsidising the operation of the plant, which is 100 per cent owned by Trinidad Cement Limited, by being charged more for cement on the local market than consumers in other island who import the same product pay.

His argument appears quite simple: How can you make a product here, add the cost of shipping and any import duties in other islands, and still manage to sell it for less than the price at which it is sold in Barbados, where it is only a truck ride of a few kilometres away?

And since the current arrangement prevents the consumer in Barbados from importing cement unless certain costly conditions are met, Arawak literally has a monopoly on the local market.

Our question is: How much more successful would Barbados be at housing its population if the cost of the leading input reflected genuine market forces as opposed to artificially set prices?

Of course, in the current strained labour market, no prudent Government would rush to take decisions that would cost jobs, as would obviously be the case if Arawak was forced to close. But would a shift in policy on the importation of cement create enough of an economic boon to cancel out any job losses? It is worth examining.

In any event, Arawak is not a public sector entity. It is a profit seeking corporation that makes decisions with the bottom line always in mind. Why should Barbadian consumers be asked to make their cement purchasing decision on any other basis?

But since Government does not own Arawak, technically it cannot close it — however, its policy decision can be to tell Arawak’s owners that like everyone else, especially Barbadian manufacturers trying to sell their goods in Trinidad, they must be able to compete.

If Arawak Cement Company wants to stay, no one should put any impediment in their way, certainly not the Government — and we do not see importation of cement in competition as an impediment. Government needs to do the right thing by local consumers.

Which brings us back to the environmental issues. No company that has the kind of favourable market that Arawak has should find itself at the centre of a dispute which suggests it is not being fair to its neighbours.

Favourable treatment, at least requires reciprocity. Homes covered in dust and soot can’t be the reciprocity Barbadians expect. Arawak, based on the allegations and the physical evidence, is not being an exemplary corporate citizen or neighbour.

And if they can’t get their act together then the authorities with the requisite authority and mandate should assist them in achieving better standards. Quarrying and the processing of the extract must of necessity generate some dust, and no reasonable neighbour should expect operating theatre-like conditions. But what residents in St. Lucy complain about is at the other extreme of the scale.

We do not believe they are getting a fair break.

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