Sunday, June 16, 2019 will mark seventy-one years since the shooting to death of five sugar workers at Enmore, East Coast Demerara. The five: Rambarran, Pooran, Lallabagee, Surajballi and Harry, became known as the Enmore Martyrs following their deaths on June 16, 1948. This year, the anniversary coincides with the universal observance of Father’s Day, which makes for special and possibly painful reflections by their descendants.
The word “Martyrs”, by definition, connotes the ultimate sacrifice that one selflessly makes, generally for the betterment of others and country. The Enmore Martyrs paid with their dear lives for the cause of bettering working conditions for sugar workers.
The arduous task of harvesting cane manually is well known. One of the workers’ contentions then was that, having cut the cane, loading it into punts some distance away — referred to as the “cut and load” system — was an added burden. This back-breaking method, which was introduced in 1945, was clearly unpopular with the workers, who demanded that it be replaced with “cut and “drop”; they cut, and others load.
At the time, social and economic conditions were less than desirable. That saddled workers with poor wages and living conditions on the estates. They also wanted the then Guiana Industrial Workers Union (GIWU) to be recognised as the union to bargain for them. In their minds these were justifiable demands, and having been unable to have them met, they resorted to strike action in April of 1948.
The use of scabs to fill the void the strike had created did not resolve the sugar producers’ dilemma, and as production became seriously affected, they introduced drastic measures in an effort to force the striking workers to return to work. And with the workers feeling betrayed by the union, the Man Power Citizen’s Association (MPCA) that represented them, the situation became exacerbated and ultimately led to what transpired on that fateful day of June 16, 1948.
The context of that incident must not be lost. Those were simple workers who courageously stood up to the authority, demanding that their welfare not be ignored. After all, they were contributing significantly to the enrichment of the masters, who seemed totally unconcerned about the plight the workers were forced to endure.
The deaths of the Enmore five resonated across the country. That incident was a pivotal moment in our nation’s history and polity. It profoundly impacted a young Dr. Cheddi Jagan. The strikes prior to the shooting were supported by the Political Affairs Committee (PAC), of which he and his wife Janet were among the founders. They helped to raise funds, and operated soup kitchens to assist the striking workers and their families. The deaths of the five workers touched him in many ways; and at the gravesite on the day of their funerals, he silently pledged to dedicate his life to the cause of the Guyanese people, to free them from bondage and exploitation.
It was that pledge that propelled and guided him in his relentless struggles for an independent Guyana, and to champion the rights of workers. He founded the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) in 1950, and this led to subsequent struggles, which culminated in the return to democracy in 1992.
While the five workers died during their quest for betterment, their sacrifices further heightened awareness of what they had experienced; galvanising sentiments, fuelling hope, and helping to intensify the struggle not just for improved working conditions for sugar workers, but for all Guyanese.
However, following their struggles for advancement on the sugar belt, seventy-one years after, one can venture to question the seeming erosion of the value of their sacrifices by the powers that be. Within the past three years, a number of sugar estates have been closed, plunging thousands of workers into unemployment. The callous manner in which it was done — without any apparent consideration for impact assessment studies and alternative employment – has been interpreted as being uncaring for the workers and the dire circumstances it had created. As it is, these unemployed workers continue to experience tremendous difficulties to provide for their families, including the provision of education for children.
The social impact of this mass termination continues to ripple across and beyond the sugar belt, crippling local economies and drastically reversing the gains made in living standards. Many families are hard-pressed to provide three basic but modest meals per day as pressure mounts on the recognised breadwinner.
While the scenario may be different from what had transpired in 1948, there are frightening similarities. Today, the harsh reality is that thousands of affected sugar workers daily face a monumental task to provide for their families, as uncertainty and despondency engulf to the point of strangulation. Given what is unfolding now — not just for sugar workers, but for all who are affected by the worsening economic situation, and as the quality of life declines — the question of whether the Enmore Martyrs’ sacrifices were in vain seems apt for debate. While such sacrifices are always valued and epitomised as beacons of hope and pillars of strength, the answer for the workers currently affected may unavoidably be a foregone conclusion. Father’s Day, unfortunately, may not bring any respite.