The Enmore Martyrs did not die in vain
By Mellissa Ifill
June 29, 2002
June 16 marked the 54th anniversary of the death of five sugar workers at Enmore who lost their lives in the workers’ struggle to improve their living and working situations. This article analyses the reasons for the workers’ protests, the events surrounding and the impact of the death of the martyrs.
Ashton Chase in his seminal work "A History of Trade Unionism in Guyana, 1900-1961" concluded that the five workers - Rambarran, Lall, Lallabagee, Kisson, Surujballi and Harri - who were killed on 16th June, 1948 in Enmore, did not die in vain. Although one of the main aims of the 1948 strikes, which was the recognition of the Guiana Industrial Trade Union, was not achieved, a number of other important gains were made. One was the appointment of a commission, headed by J. A. Venn to investigate and comment on the sugar industry in Guyana, with special emphasis on the system of production, wages and working conditions, and the condition of women who comprised 28% of the labour force on the sugar estates.
This Venn Commission made the following recommendations:
* That regular workers be provided with plots of land to cultivate their own rice and ground provisions;
* That the old housing be dismantled and that new accommodations for sugar workers be rebuilt within five years;
* That the title of "drivers", which was reminiscent of slavery and indentureship be replaced by "headmen";
* That crèches be supplied on all estates and tasks arranged in a manner that would allow female workers to care for their children;
* That female gangs be supervised by females;
* That women and girls should not work in water;
* That fresh water be provided for those working in the back fields;
* That shelters be erected to protect workers from rain and where they could eat their meals;
* That measures be taken to deter child labour;
* That the cut and load system be generally employed except in instances where there weren’t enough punts.
There were a number of causes of the 1948 protests. During the 1940s, sugar workers were faced with the predicament where despite their hard work which resulted in increased and more efficient production of sugar, they were nevertheless given the same or even less income due in some measure, to the deteriorating price of sugar on the world market. Workers’ basic earnings in 1948 were the same as in 1939 and occurred within the context of a steadily increasing cost of living.
The circumstances under which sugar workers continued to work and live were therefore appalling. Not only were workers subjected to extremely low pay but they were also faced with inhumane working conditions along with mistreatment and abuse by supervisors who failed to recognise the basic rights of workers and to treat them with dignity as human beings. Moreover, many sugar workers continued to dwell in dilapidated and overcrowded barracks that remained from the period of indenture. These barracks were generally bordered by stagnant water and families were forced to use deplorable sanitation and water facilities.
Further, by 1948, the Man Power Citizen’s Association (MPCA) which was formed in 1937 and which fought for and gained the right to represent the predominantly East Indian sugar workers and in which East Indian workers had placed their faith, began to lose its appeal. The MPCA appeared to be kowtowing to the economic and political directorate in the colony. When pressed by the workers, the MPCA started negotiations in February 1948 with the Sugar Producers’ Association. The workers demanded an increase in the rate of pay and were also apprehensive about the introduction of a new system of computing pay, with the old cut and drop system being replaced by the new cut and load system.
Under the old cut and drop system, the cane cutters cut the canes and left them on the bank of the trench, where loaders took them and placed them on punts. The former were paid 45 cents per ton and the loaders 15 cents per ton. Under the new cut and load system the workers performed both tasks of cutting cane and loading them unto punts and were paid 60 cents per ton.
The concerns over the new cut and load system were many and included:
1. By combining the two tasks, many persons lost their jobs. The older workers in particular were the main victims since most were unable to cope with the two very demanding tasks.
2. The remaining workers argued that they were doing a lot more work for very little money and ought to be paid more than 60 cents per ton.
3. Cutting cane was more lucrative than loading so those who formerly only cut cane and were then forced to do both were resentful.
4. Workers also complained that often when the canes were being weighed, that they were cheated.
5. There were often delays in providing punts to cutters and this resulted in the workers being in the field way into the night and sometimes the next day waiting to load.
6. The task of loading punts was very difficult for some workers who were sent to work some distance away from the dam beds and for those who were given punts that were much higher than the parapets.
The workers became even more frustrated and disgusted when in mid-April, the MPCA and the SPA signed an agreement, accepting new rates which represented an overall increase of a mere 7 cents per ton, when the workers had demanded a 40 cents increase to earn a rate of $1 for cutting and loading cane. Even though the MPCA argued that the agreement was not final, workers felt betrayed. GIWU, a new union, criticised the MPCA for signing the agreement and capitalised on this feeling of betrayal.
Workers appealed to the GIWU to represent its interests with the SPA. However, the latter refused to extend recognition to the GIWU arguing that the MPCA was the recognised trade union for sugar workers countrywide.
Workers from several estates, including Enmore, Non Pariel, Mon Repos and LBI proceeded on strike on April 22 initially pressing for recognition of the GIWU, the dismissal of the labour commissioner whom they felt was working in the interests of the SPA and the MPCA rather than the workers, and a rescinding of the new cut and load system. These demands were placed within the overall context where the general administration of the colonies and the treatment of workers and citizens were scrutinised and found wanting.
Investigations carried out by the British under judge of the Supreme Court, F. Boland after the death of the five sugar workers and the wounding of 14 others on June 16 concluded that seven policemen who had been stationed at Enmore to protect the property had been justified in opening fire on the approximately 400 workers who the investigations claimed were armed with sticks and were attempting to force their way into the property.
The findings of this investigation were seriously flawed. A number of persons, including the leadership of the GIWU, refused to testify, arguing that there would be no justice for the workers and so it would be a waste of time.
Moreover, the fact that several persons were shot in the back strongly indicated that rather than attacking, some were trying to escape.
Not surprisingly either, the Commission determined that the GIWU’s claim for recognition was unwarranted since it was essentially duplicating the work of unions already in existence.
Despite the position taken by the Commission and by extension the British government on the issue of the actions of the police and their refusal to recognise the GIWU, as Chase argued, the Enmore martyrs did not die in vain. The lives and deaths of the five Enmore workers forced the British government to publicly acknowledge that the general conditions under which sugar workers toiled as late as the 1940s were abhorrent and that these needed to be urgently remedied.
The lives and deaths of the five martyrs also signalled a new militancy, particularly among the East Indian working class, which had emerged during the mid 1930s when agricultural workers in the colony engaged in a series of protests on plantations on the east coast of Demerara, the west coast of Demerara and in Berbice. From these 1930s and 1948 protests, the importance of organisation and unity became even more evident to workers. The political leaders effectively channelled this awareness and this ultimately resulted in increasing social and political changes in the colony.