The labour scene in British Guiana, 1900-1946
By Arlene Munro
Stabroek News
May 22, 2003

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In the 1940s, there was an increase in government-sponsored measures to protect workers, to improve their labour conditions, and to facilitate labour activities. Although trade union activities had commenced since 1910 when Guyanese river captains and bowmen formed an organisation with responsibilities similar to those of a trade union, it took another thirty years for the colonial administration to regularize the registration of creditable workers' organizations. These supportive initiatives by the colonial administration really began in 1938 and increased after the visits of the Moyne Commission and Labour Adviser to the Colonial Office, Major Orde Browne.

The Second World War stimulated bauxite and sugar production and the colonial administration quite appropriately attempted to ameliorate the conditions of labour in the colony. This they did with the assistance of the Man-Power Citizens' Association, the British Guiana Labour Union, and other working peoples' organizations. The Governor, Sir Gordon Lethem, was enthusiastic about supporting Whitehall's labour policy for the colonies and earned himself the reputation of being a champion of the working class.

Governor Lethem stated shortly after his arrival in 1941 that one of his priorities would be the passing of legislation to facilitate the growth and effectiveness of trade unions, and the establishment of a separate Labour Department. It is important to note, however, that these measures were taken by Lethem in response to Colonial Office directives. The origins of Lethem's labour policy can therefore be traced to the enlightened policies undertaken by the Colonial Office. Its origins may also be linked to trade union agitation in British Guiana and the Caribbean in the 1930s. That this was so also demonstrated the extent to which these protests helped to shape Whitehall's policy. It is also possible to associate both Whitehall's enlightened approach to labour and Lethem's enthusiasm with recommendations made by Orde Browne, Labour Adviser to the Colonial Office, and the Moyne Commission.

It appears that Whitehall's labour policy slowly evolved between 1914 and the 1940s. In its early phase, Colonial Office planners observed the deterioration of living conditions in the British Caribbean and, when a Labour Government subsequently took office in 1929, it formulated a labour policy for urgent implementation by colonial governors. In 1930, Whitehall established a Labour Committee, on which sat officers from the Ministry of Labour and Whitehall, tasked with determining labour policies and the implementation of International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions in the colonies. Consequently, colonial governors received the "Passfield Memorandum", a labour policy guide, recommending registration of trade unions.

The raison d'etre of the Passfield Memorandum was Whitehall's fear that the lack of "sympathetic supervision and guidance" would result in trade unions receiving leadership from 'disaffected persons' who would cause trade union activities to be "diverted to improper and mischievous ends."

By 1937, the British government was directing colonial administrations to ameliorate the conditions of labourers and to upgrade the social services. Whitehall recommended that this be implemented through "an inspection system of working conditions" and the creation of distinct labour departments. The general protests of the 1930s must also have forced the British to attach a sense of urgency to the situation. Consequently, labour legislation was passed in several colonies in 1938 and 1939.

The overt manifestation of workers' discontent was a significant part of a wider universal workers' revolt in the 1930s. As a consequence of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, there was a serious economic depression in the western world which led to falling prices and increased unemployment. Industrial production dropped by ten to seventeen percent between 1929 and 1930 in major capitalist countries. In Europe alone, approximately 35,000,000 labourers lost their jobs and governments were forced to "cut unemployment pay and other forms of social plans." Not surprisingly, there were 19,000 strikes in fifteen major nations, exclusive of the Caribbean, between 1929 and 1932.

The Caribbean colonies were also affected. British Guiana, Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, and St Kitts all experienced major protests and strikes. By the 1930s, the Caribbean working class was self-assertive and politically conscious due to the work of local leaders and revolutionaries such as Marcus Garvey, Arthur Cipriani, Uriah Butler, Hubert Critchlow, Clennel Wicknam, Alexander Bustamante, Norman Manley and Charles Duncan O' Neale. This political awareness, coupled with contracting employment opportunities as a consequence of regional restriction of migration to America in 1924 and to Venezuela in 1929, and the aggravation of social conditions by the Great Depression, produced fertile conditions for regional militancy and disturbances in the Caribbean.

In British Guiana, local trade unions such as the British Guiana Labour Union (B.G.L.U.), the Man-Power citizens' Association (M.P.C.A.), and the British Guiana Workers' League (B.G.W.L.), featured prominently in the popular protests of the 1930s. The B.G.L.U. encouraged workers to strike in 1935 on estates in Demerara, while the M.P.C.A. represented those who struck on Leonora Estate in 1939 and negotiated with the Sugar Producers' Association whenever there was an industrial relations conflict.

The B.G.L.U., founded by H. Critchlow in 1919, long before Whitehall conceived the idea of developing trade unions and passing labour legislation, played an agitational role. In the 1930s, it demanded shorter working hours, incorporation of worker representatives in the Legislative Council, and the provision of social insurance (old age pensions and national health insurance) for workers. Resolutions were passed by the B.G.L.U. asking for these provisions and for workmen's compensation as well.

The B.G.L.U. led public demonstrations throughout the streets of Georgetown, on several occasions and most of the participants were the disaffected unemployed. In 1937, the B.G.L.U. sent a deputation to the Governor demanding legislation for reduced hours of work for stevedores, and funding of more public works so as to provide employment for the jobless. In 1938, Critchlow attended the British Guiana and West Indian Labour Congress where resolutions were passed demanding minimum wages, social insurance for workers, a forty-four hour week, workmen's compensation for agricultural labourers and domestic servants, trade union law, legislation for the creation of Wages Advisory Boards, labour Officers and factory legislation. Previously, in 1926, the B.G.L.U. had hosted the first regional Labour Conference, a resolution was passed demanding for the British Caribbean, workman's compensation, an eight-hour day for workers, the cessation of child labour, and the introduction of minimum wages, old age pensions, and national health insurance. It is therefore evident that the Guianese and Caribbean working class had not been sitting around waiting on the Colonial Office to institute labour legislation and reform. They were in part the catalyst promoting change in the region.

In 1937, the M.P.C.A. was founded by Ayube Edun to represent sugar workers on the sugar estates. The B.G.W.L. was already active on the sugar estates among factory workers. The B.G.L.U., B.G.W.L. and the M.P.C.A. played militant roles in the 1930s when a labour struggle of universal proportions was in progress and their demands, petitions and resolutions, were a significant factor in fashioning Whitehall's labour policy. Even in those early days, they received advice from the British Trade Union Congress whose Secretary was Sir Walter Citrine. After the 1937 protests in Trinidad, Citrine was part of a committee which persuaded the Colonial Office to "introduce labour departments in the colonies, to promote trade unionism, to provide workmen's compensation, to eliminate penal sanctions for labour offences and to investigate low standards of local health, housing and of inadequate wages."

The manifestation of workers' discontent and Citrine's influence convinced the Colonial office that labour legislation and practices comparable to those of Britain were needed in the colonies. The Moyne Commission was sent to the colonies in 1939 to investigate the causes of the disturbances.

The report revealed the impoverished conditions and supported contentions made by Major Orde Browne when he toured the colonies in 1938.

One may therefore conclude that the origins of Whitehall labour policy can also be traced to the recommendations made by Walter Citrine, Major Browne and the Moyne Commission.

Lethem's role in the implementation of colonial policy was critical. Prior to his arrival, a Labour and Local Government Department was established. The passing of legislation to facilitate the growth and effectiveness of trade unions and the creation of a separate Labour Department were among Lethem's priorities when he assumed office in 1941. A Labour Bill Ordinance No. 2 of 1942, was passed on 20 January 1942 to "provide for the appointment of a Commission of Labour..." In response to the Moyne Commission recommendations, a separate and autonomous Department of Labour was created in August 1942. The Colonial Office appointed Colin Fraser, an expatriate, to be the new Commissioner of Labour and he arrived in British Guiana in 1942.

The passing of progressive labour legislation was not an easy task for Lethem. The Legislative councils of 1941, 1942 and 1943 were composed of representatives of the Demerara Bauxite Company, the Sugar Producers' Association and the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce.

Thus all the major employers of labour in the colony had to be persuaded to enact progressive labour legislation which would give more rights to the workers and increase the social obligations of the employers.

Correspondence between Lethem and the Secretary of State for the Colonies attest to the problems he encountered with the Legislative Council, which preferred to wait until the new Labour Department was created before passing labour laws. Lethem complained that a new Council could not be formed until the Colonial Office had sent certain documents and until the extant Legislative council decided to vote in favour of such a change and this aggravated the situation.

When the Bill authorizing the creation of the Labour Department was finally passed in 1942, Lethem claimed that he had had to exert his influence over the Legislative council, which was quite opposed to it.

Subsequently, Lethem satisfied the demands of the trade unions by appointing two representatives of labour to the new Legislative Council.

They were Ayube Edun, leader of the M.P.C.A, and Hubert Critchlow, Secretary of the B.G.L.U. This was also in keeping with a recommendation of the Moyne Commission that the Legislative Council be made more representative of the community. By 1946, the Colonial Office Annual Report could report:

During the war years legislation was enacted to provide for the establishment of conciliation and arbitration machinery; the regulation of wages and notifications of accidents; the conditions of employment of women, young persons and children; the recruiting of workers; the hours of work of shop assistants and employees in licenced premises; the establishment of employment exchanges; peaceful picketing; the compulsory registration of trade unions and the regulation of fees to be paid for the audit of trade union accounts.

During the 1940s the colonial administration of British Guiana attempted to establish an autonomous Labour Department and to enact progressive Labour legislation. For the first time Labour representatives were appointed to the Legislative Council. These changes were made in response to Colonial Office instructions and also in response to the demands of the British Guiana Labour Union, the Man-Power Citizen's Association and other trade unions. These innovations should also be viewed as a response to regional and international worker unrest and trade union demands at those levels. The Moyne Commission, which investigated the labour unrest in the British Caribbean during the 1930s, made constructive criticisms and recommendations, which benefited the labour movement.

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