Women in the Sugar Industry: The Pre Independence period
History This Week
By Cecilia McAlmont
March 30, 2006
International Women's Day was celebrated earlier this month under the theme 'Women in Decision Making'. The underlying message of all the symposia, seminars and discussions organized to celebrate the day was that while Guyanese women have made some strides in this all-important arena, by and large, our presence in the halls of power and decision making, given the many conventions our government has signed and ratified, remains unacceptably low. Part of the reason for this is that women's contribution in almost every aspect of the development process is often half-heartedly documented, sometimes by women themselves, hence their achievements remain unheard and compared to men, poorly remunerated. One of the many areas where the silence continues to be quite deafening is in our contribution in the sugar industry which after nearly two centuries to some extent still remains the lifeblood of our country. This article is intended to make a contribution to filling that lacuna.
The sugar industry in Guiana really began to take off in the first decades of the 19th century after its final acquisition by Britain. England planters who had begun investing in the sugar industry during the latter part of the 18th century now poured more financial and human resources into the newly acquired colonies. This increased investment in the industry coincided with Britain's decision to bring an end to the trade in African slaves. This created a problem for the acquisition of fresh supplies of slaves in general and female slaves, always in short supply, in particular. Recent research on women has indicated that women's direct participation in the sugar industry was influenced by the need for labour which depended on the availability of slaves on the world market. Shepherd and Beckles (2000) further posited that "at times of labour shortage, particularly towards the end of the slave trade, when young male slaves were not easily purchased, women were used in increasing proportions as field labourers rather than as household workers." They also stated that "at times of severe labour shortage, slave women were employed more often than males in field labour while in times of adequate supply women were employed in equal numbers to males in field labour."
The gender bias in the writing of history in the past has severely underestimated the role and contribution of women to the sugar industry and gives the impression that the work of sugar production was only men's work. Lucille Mair summarized the reality of the situation thus: "without intending to do so, the system of slavery in many essentials organised men's and women's lives in a way which gave them a common cause. Slavery in many essentials made men and women roughly equal in the eyes of the master. Legally, they had identical status as chattels, as objects which could be owned. They were seen not as men or women, but as objects which could be owned, not so much as men or women but as units of labour. Their jobs on the plantation were distributed not according to sex, but according to age and health … in fact as long as women were young and fit, they were recruited into the same work force as men and shared more or less the same labour."
During the period of indenture, women continued to participate just as actively in the sugar industry. Immigrant women were also in short supply but unlike chattel slave women they did have a few choices. They tended to work in the less backbreaking tasks in the field and factory like weeding and manuring of the canes. No doubt in the writing the story of the sugar industry, the overwhelmingly male writers, influenced by the perceptions of the role of women and what was accepted as suitable occupations for women, deliberately downplayed and understated the contribution of women in those areas that were regarded as men's rather than women's work. In fact we are made aware of women's continued involvement in the industry up to the middle of the 20th century because of their active participation in protest against the deplorable working conditions. Walter Rodney (1981) showed that sometimes disturbances on the estate began in the female-dominated weeding gang and cited the example of Salamea who urged the 'coolies' to fight.
Our knowledge that women of African descent continued to work on the sugar estates comes from the testimony of Dorothy Rice during the enquiry into the 1905 Ruimveldt riots. She was a member of the delegation of workers' representatives and testified about her meagre weekly earnings from cutting cane. Women fieldworkers participated in the unrest on the sugar estates in 1924 and joined with Creole and Indian men to walk to Georgetown from the East Bank Demerara to see Hubert Critchlow.
The Venn Commission Report of 1948 was one of the few occasions when women were openly recognised as an integral part of the estate labour force. It was called after the 1946 "Enmore Incident" to enquire into the condition of the sugar industry in British Guiana. According to Ashton Chase (1964), this commission paid special attention to the situation of women in the sugar industry. It stated that during 1939, 1946 and 1949, women made up 30.6%, 30.1% and 27.8% respectively of the total labour force in the sugar industry. It commented on the harshness of some of the tasks women were called upon to perform in order to subsidise their husbands' meagre earnings. It recommended, among other things, that crèches be provided on each estate and tasks in the field be arranged so as to permit women to return home to prepare meals and look after their children, and also that women and girls should as soon as possible be prevented by ordinance from working in water. Except for the crèches, the recommendations were quite impracticable given, in case of the first, the distance of the fields from the homes of the women and in the second, the very nature of some of the tasks they had to perform, made it well nigh impossible for them not to work in water some of the time.
It is not without irony, however, that women who became best known for their involvement in the sugar industry, did not actually work there in any capacity but came to be recognized for their attempts to organise the sugar workers in the trade union movement which took off after the labour unrest of the 1930s and the recommendations of the Moyne Commission. In this regard, three women come to mind immediately viz Mrs Janet Jagan, Jane Philips Gay and Philomena Sahoye-Shury. Dissatisfaction with the quality of representation given to sugar workers by the MPCA led to the establishment of the Guiana Industrial Workers Union with J.P. Latchmansingh as president and Jane Philips Gay as general secretary. She served in this position with considerable energy and enthusiasm until the split of the People's Progressive Party into the Jagan and Burnham factions. She joined the Burnham (later People's National Congress) faction.
A feature that has characterized the evolution of political parties in the Caribbean is the close linkages many had with trade unions. In the case of the three women earlier mentioned, they used the skills and experience they gained as trade unionists to advance their status in politics. Mrs Jagan certainly honed the skills she was to use in her political career from her involvement in trade union activity. The establishment in 1946 of the Political Affairs Committee which later became the PPP coincided with the Enmore protest which resulted in the death of five sugar workers. Dr and Mrs Jagan were very vocal in their representation of the workers. Mrs Jagan headed the funeral cortege of the martyred workers and continues to play a lead role in commemorating their death anniversary. She also later asked that a pension be given to their families. Sahoye-Shury became involved in the sugar industry in the 1960s with the newly formed Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union. She was general secretary of the union for several years. Indeed it was her aggressiveness in championing their demands for increased wages and her being in the forefront of the union's challenge of the MPCA for the right to represent the sugar workers that she earned the sobriquet "fireball."
Despite the scant recognition in the writings on sugar, women have always made a significant contribution to the survival and development of the industry though not at the decision-making level. This continued to be the case in the post independence/post nationalization period. While quantitatively women's participation has not increased significantly in the millennium, qualitatively it certainly has. In this critical juncture of the reconstruction of the industry, a woman holds the important portfolio of Director of Marketing of GUYSUCO. However, that achievement and the contribution of women in the industry since independence will be the subject of a future article.