One of the tragedies of Guyana is even though five of the “six peoples” – the exception being Amerindians – were brought into this country to “work” in most exploitative relationships, a unity of interest to address that relationship has never been achieved.
But if the historical record is examined, one can begin to appreciate the challenges in achieving that goal since the seeds of disunity were sowed from the earliest days.
When Africans were brought in as slaves to work on the Dutch up-river plantations, the ones that escaped into the “bush” were hunted by Amerindians hired by the Dutch planters and paid a bounty. During the Berbice Rebellion of 1763, forces loyal to Cuffy were hunted by Amerindians. After the fertility of soils of the riverain areas were depleted and the plantations moved to the coastland, that particular competition between the groups receded.
But the Portuguese, West Indian freed Africans, Indians and Chinese, who were brought into the colony of British Guiana as “indentured labourers” after the abolition of slavery, precipitated competition between the working peoples that remain stubbornly entrenched.
The indentureds were explicitly imported by the planters to undercut the bargaining power of the freed African slaves. The latter were successful in their strike of 1842 and their wages were significantly higher than in the WI islands where there was no alternative to remaining in the plantations. In Guyana there was comparatively more opportunities.
However, with the introduction of significant numbers of Portuguese (15,747) West Indians (12,898), African freed from slave ships (6,956) and Indians (8,692) the strike of 1847 was broken by individuals the freed slaves had to have seen as “scabs”.
This early resentment against “indentureds” undercutting African bargaining soon became personified in the Indians, who came in a seemingly unending stream until 1917. From 1848, the exodus of the African from the plantations began in earnest and those that remained were mostly skilled workers in the factories.
From a workers’ perspective there was not much competition on the plantations until after Indentureship when Indians began vying for jobs in the sugar factories. The competition became more significant when Indians began moving off the sugar plantations and into the towns.
There they began to compete for positions in the lower echelons of the Civil Service, which had been carved out as a niche for ambitious members of the Coloured and African middle class that had developed. There was also competition from the 1930s onwards as Indians began to enter the professional class. Worker competition unfortunately became coterminous with “ethnic” competition.
Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow’s pioneering and historic launching of the British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU) on the waterfront inspired many Indian workers seeking to better their lot on the sugar plantations. But a concatenation of several political currents caused a joint worker effort at Ruimveldt in 1924, which could have resulted in cross-ethnic worker solidarity, instead end in separation. While the factory workers were represented by the BGLU, the first sugar union for field workers was the Ayube Edun-led Man Power Citizens Association (MPCA) in 1937.
Dr Cheddi Jagan’s attendance at the 1945 Caribbean Labour Congress in Georgetown, spurred both his political ambition and his desire to help sugar workers.
Practically all political movements in the Caribbean, including Guyana’s, were birthed in the fight for workers’ rights by Trade Unions. Jagan’s Public Affairs Committee (PAC) of 1947 was followed by the GIWU that agitated in the sugar belt and precipitated the Enmore strike where five workers were killed by the colonial police.
In the struggle for Independence, as the politicians from the PPP and the PNC competed for the political prize, they turned the unions into vehicles to support political, and not necessarily workers’ interests. After 50 years Independence and persistent divisions of the labour unions, all the labour organisations marched under one banner on Labour Day 2016. It is our hope that like all “representative” organisations, they will focus on representing their constituency’s interests.