At an early age my parents had to join their mothers in the cane fields. My mother had to work from 7.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. manuring sugarcane in the fields for five cents a day. She often recalls how difficult those days were: “Bhaiya, ahwee proper punish”, (Brother, we really suffered).
Guyana is an 83,000 square mile, ex-colony perched on the northeast hump of Latin America. Its history has been largely the history of sugar. With the exception of indigenous Indians, the ancestors of almost all of Guyana’s people (East Indians, Blacks and mixed races) were brought to the colony as slaves or indentured workers to labour on the sugar plantations. They live mainly along the flat Atlantic coast and along the major rivers, paralleling the location of the 13 sugar estates that produce 300,000 tons of sugar yearly. Some 30,000 workers, mainly of East Indian ancestry, are employed in the sugar industry. Along with bauxite and rice, sugar forms the backbone of the country’s economy.
At an early age my parents had to join their mothers in the cane fields. My mother had to work from 7.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. manuring sugarcane in the fields for five cents a day. She often recalls how difficult those days were: "Bhaiya, ahwee proper punish", (Brother, we really suffered).
Former Guyanese Prime Minister, Cheddi Jagan
The turning point for Guyanese sugar workers came in 1948 when cane cutters at Enmore Estate (owned by the larger of two British companies that controlled sugar in Guyana) struck for better working conditions and union recognition. When unarmed striking workers attempted to enter the factory area to prevent strikebreaking, colonial police opened fire on them, killing five. A British enquiry exonerated the company and the police, but the impetus for national independence was already established.
Four labour leaders were Cabinet members in the first internal self-governing administration in 1953. One of the goals of the new government was to ensure free trade union elections. The sugar companies, fearing that such steps would erode their power, helped launch a Communist scare campaign. The Constitution was suspended and the new government deposed after only 133 days’ in office.
Legislation to give workers genuine representation was again a key issue ten years later, in 1963, when a similar Labour Relations Bill was introduced. This time collusion by urban unions, CIA-backed US affiliate unions and the British Government led to a destructive general strike. The country moved to genuine independence from Britain soon after in 1966.
It wasn’t until 1975, after another long bitter strike opposed by the sugar companies, the government and the military, that union elections were finally allowed. The Workers’ Union, now called Guyana Agricultural Workers Union, won with 98 per cent of the nearly 20,000 votes cast. After thirty years of struggle recognition had come at last. Cane-cutters with more than three years service were guaranteed out-of-season work and promised land to build homes after decades in estate-owned communal dwellings.
The Union then pressed for nationalization of the industry. In May 1976, nine estates and other holdings of Booker McConnell Ltd. were purchased by the Guyana Government for about $55 million. Due to the sale Booker McConnell reported ‘record profits’ after they had shed the loss-making operations of their Guyana affiliates.
Jessel Securities, the British Company that owned the other two estates was also taken over - much to its relief since it was also in a shaky financial state.
As Clive Thomas, Head of the Department of Economics at the University of Guyana points out, ‘Since the Second World War, the sugar companies did not bring any new investment into Guyana to finance expansion. Although they were purchased by the government, there was no redress for previous exploitation of Guyanese resources’.
Meanwhile the government continued to impose a special levy which undercut an agreed scheme in which sugar workers would have shared directly in profits. When the government refused to pay sugar workers their share in 1977, a strike was called by the newly-recognised union.
The government was quick to respond. Relief food meant for the strikers was seized, provisions of a National Security Act were invoked to ban union meetings, and the military and workers from other sectors of the economy’ were ordered into the fields. Some 6,000 strike breakers were hired and given permanent employment.
After holding out for 135 days, the 18,000 sugar workers were forced to abandon the strike when leadership of the local trade union central, despite lip-service to the cause, refused to support their action. Workers were faced with the added humiliation when strike-breakers were retained and given special privilege and promotion to better jobs.
Strangely enough, the strike-breakers were later honoured by the Minister of Agriculture as ‘volunteers’ - ‘Heroes of the Socialist Revolution in Guyana’.
Recently the price of sugar has again risen on world markets, but sugar workers in Guyana will receive little immediate benefit. The government has backed down on earlier agreements to increase the national minimum wage, which now stands a little above $5 a day. Even during crop time workers often are offered only three or four days work a week. Unable to obtain land from the government they have attempted to build homes on public land without authorization. Their efforts have been met with police repression and their shacks bulldozed. Women on the estates are still forced to wade deep canals to work long hours weeding the cane fields. Recently they’ve had to face marauding thieves in more remote cane fields.
Faced with a government which controls 80 per cent of the national economy but which has not permitted workers real benefits or control of nationalized industries, the sugar workers and their Union find themselves scarcely better off than during colonial times. Yet there seems to be no wavering among sugar workers in their struggle for better conditions and genuine participation and control of their industry.
Mike James is a reporter for the Catholic Standard in Guyana.