July 12, 2006

Healthcare services hit by demise of sugar industry

The sugar industry has provided much of the province's infrastructure, from roads and housing to schools and hospitals, but with the industry in decline, companies have started cutting back on these services. The Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation (RSSC), the biggest player in the industry, has closed one of its four clinics and merged two others, while Ubombo Sugar Limited is also planning belt-tightening measures.

Swaziland is one of 18 countries in Africa, the Carribean and the Pacific that have benefited from a 30-year-old agreement to supply a fixed quantity of sugar to the EU at a subsidised price up to three and a half times higher than the world price. But after a World Trade Organisation ruling said the preferential agreements were unfair, the EU is cutting sugar prices by 36 percent over three years, with a first reduction of 5 percent taking effect this month. Sugar has been the largest industry in Swaziland, providing 93.000 jobs.

Company-funded medical facilities are available to employees and their dependants, and community members who can afford them. But falling international sugar prices and rising production costs mean that an increasing number of small-scale cane growers can barely afford to maintain their small plots and feed their families, let alone pay for medical fees.

Pressure on public health facilities is increasing, while the loss of revenue from sugar exports is likely to impact on the government's ability to increase spending on health and other services previously subsidised by sugar companies. (Rts)

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