The early years of the Department of Labour in British Guiana By Arlene Munro
Stabroek News
February 27, 2003

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In 1942 a Department of Labour was established in British Guiana for the first time. Its policy was "to strive to create an atmosphere unfavourable to disputes..." and to persuade employers and trade unions to reach amicable settlements through 'direct negotiation.' It was headed by Colin Fraser, an expatriate, who was seconded from the Home Service to work in British Guiana for three years, 1942-1945. A former Conciliation Officer of the Industrial Relations Division of Glasgow and Clyde in Scotland, he was assisted by a Scotsman, William M. Bissell, who served as the Deputy Commissioner of Labour. Bissell was a former District Secretary for the West of Scotland Electrical Trades Union, and former President of the Clyde District Committee of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions.

The new Department of Labour impacted on urban trade unionism in several ways. One dimension was the education of workers in trade unionism. It arranged lectures for workers and invited Guianese professionals such as J.J.M. Hubbard, Lionel Luckhoo, J. Ramphal, and A.V. Crane to participate. These local lawyers lectured on trade union law and the law of workmen's compensation. The Commissioners of Labour, Colin Fraser and William Bissell, also made presentations. The first series of lectures was held from February 9 to August 10, 1943 at the Workers' Study Circle, Georgetown. The Workers' Study Circle provided a forum where unionized workers could be educated about trade union principles and could discuss trade union issues rationally. It sometimes met at the Public Free Library, Georgetown. Following this initial series, other lectures were held in the rural areas, eg at Rose Hall village and New Amsterdam, Berbice.

The Department of Labour, in its attempt to modernize trade unions, drafted a new set of rules, which were quite inadequate. Consequently, the majority of the trade unions drafted new rules, using the model prepared by the Department of Labour. The aims of the new rules were to re-direct the emphasis of unions on industrial rather than political issues, to demarcate their organizational fields, and to render them more democratic. There was the tendency for there to be 'self-appointed' and 'self-centred' trade union leaders who held paramount positions for many years. The ordinary trade union member seldom was consulted during 'policy decisions.'

One of the aims of the department was to re-direct the attention of unions to industrial issues rather than political ones. The Labour Department failed to realize that political issues were the basis of the problems faced by workers who understood that acquiring political power and addressing political issues were other ways of helping themselves. This concept was expressed by Trinidadian union leader, Albert Gomes, at the 25th Anniversary of the British Guiana Labour Union and Trinidadian delegate, V.E. Henry, at the British Guiana and West Indian Labour Conference of 1944.

The department's opposition to union involvement in politics was perhaps one of the contributory factors to differences between itself and the British Guiana Trade Union Council. In 1945, the Commissioner of Labour admitted that its determination to change unions was another factor contributing to the dissension between them. He stated: "The probable reason for this is that under guidance the department has pushed the trade unions fairly hard for the past three years, and a certain amount of resentment has arisen at the pace which has been set."

In the 1940s, the Department of Labour in British Guiana was also responsible for the establishment of an Employment Exchange Service. The Commissioner of Labour stated that the aims of the Employment Exchange Service were: "(a) to improve the mobility of labour in the colony; and (b) to provide some indication of the number of unemployed persons in the colony who desire employment."

After the Employment Act was passed in 1944, the Employment Exchange opened an office at 135 Regent Street, Georgetown. Initially, only unemployed males were registered but, in 1946, another office was given the responsibility of registering unemployed females. The Commissioner of Labour also chaired a committee responsible for the "reabsorption into community life of ex-servicemen and displaced workers."

The Labour Department also helped to organize the registration of waterfront workers. The Georgetown Port Labour Committee, composed of employers and employees and chaired by the Commissioner of Labour, was in charge of this scheme, the aims of which were "the decasualisation of port labour and the avoidance and settlement of disputes." The scheme was a success and resulted in the amelioration of conditions on the waterfront.

One of the other duties of the Department of Labour was the "collection and compilation of statistics relating to wages, stoppages of work, accidents, retail prices of commodities and cost of living index numbers." These statistics appeared frequently in newspapers and the official gazette.

They helped to create a picture of labour conditions in the colony. The cost-of- living index particularly served to inform government of rises in the cost-of- living and to reinforce its representations to the Secretary of State for the Colonies for additional cost-of-living bonuses for Guianese workers.

One unsuccessful endeavour of the Department of Labour was its attempt to introduce demarcation in a situation where unions were attempting to represent workers who were already unionized.

The situation arose when specialist unions emerged to represent workers in certain fields which hitherto were the domain of a general union. In the circumstances, therefore, the Labour Department sought to introduce a demarcation policy. This attempt was unsuccessful in spite of the endorsement given by the British Guiana Trades Union Council concerning the "organizational file of each of the member unions..."

According to the Commissioner of Labour, the failure to implement the decision of the British Guiana Trades union Council was due to 'opposition tactics' of some trade union leaders. He stated: "This has been largely due to the opposition tactics resorted to by one or two influential self-appointed leaders who appear to be concerned lest the policy of defining the scope of each union would affect their position in the trade union movement, and more particularly in the political field." The Trade Union Council would later agree to "suspend the policy of demarcation for three years." It is evident that the Labour Department played a significant role in helping to reshape urban unions during the 1940s. They also played a significant role on the estates.

The Labour Department attempted to assist the sugar workers. It established estate joint-committees in June 1945 to address differences between managerial staff and workers. It was envisaged that the estate committees would examine questions concerning which there had been failure to agree between Executive representatives of the union and the Sugar Producers' Association. If discussions failed, the Labour Department was invited to intervene. According to the Commissioner of Labour, the problems which the estate committees experienced did not prevent the managers and trade unions from viewing the system as beneficial. While the workers at Skeldon, Versailles, Ogle, Port Mourant, Wales and Rose Hall estates utilized the committee system to good advantage, those on the East Coast of Demerara found it unworkable.

The Labour Department presided over meetings of the Man Power Citizens' Association and the Sugar Producers' Association to discuss medical care on the estates, conditions of labour for women, shorter hours for field-workers, and allotment of padi and provision plots for field workers.

In response to these discussions, Booker Brothers and McConnell, the major sugar company in the colony, attempted to improve health and housing conditions on the estates. These improvements were not radical and widespread enough because the Venn Commission, which made a survey of the sugar industry in 1949, found much to criticize.

The Commissioner of Labour also suggested that the 'cut and load' system be implemented, but it had many faults. The older labourers complained that it exhausted them and generally it was observed that only three days of work could be accomplished under this system. The Commissioner of Labour had the best of intentions when he recommended the 'cut and load' system to replace the 'cut and drop' one. But it had become a grievance of the workers and was one of the causes of a major strike at Enmore estate on the East Coast of Demerara which ended in tragedy in 1948.

From October 19-22, 1942, Colin Fraser, the new Commissioner of Labour, conducted an inspectorate visit of the new living quarters at Cockatura and reported that bauxite workers were forced to leave their accommodation whenever the company requested, plumbing in the new houses was defective, and water closets without doors stood in the yard, four for every forty-four houses. One positive development was the new school building for workers' children. However, the Commissioner concluded after his tour of inspection: "The degree of 'control' exercised by the company in Cockatura, is such as in our opinion to the rights and privileges of the individual as a citizen and should not be placed in the hands of an employer in relation to his workers or their dependents." When the Commissioner met with F.B. Henderson, Managing Director of Demba, to discuss the British Guiana Labour Union's desire to unionize workers there, he was told to inform the union that Demba "had no objections to any worker becoming a member of the union." The Commissioner nevertheless had reason to conclude that the company did not want any active trade union operation among their workers.

During this meeting, Demba opined that the shortening of working hours, as required by the Labour Department, would lead to a loss of production and threatened to present this as an excuse to the American, British and Canadian governments if the industry failed to meet the required war demands. The company nevertheless promised to start the six-day, sixty-hour week by March 31, 1943, and a six-day forty-eight hour week by 31 March 1944. When the bauxite company failed to keep its promise, the Executive Council made a decision to issue an order for the implementation of the six-day sixty-hour week. Therefore, the Department of Labour with the support of the Executive Council was able to effect change and to ameliorate working conditions in Mackenize among the bauxite workers.

Undoubtedly, the new Department of Labour made a positive impact on the workers and on trade unionism in British Guiana in the 1940s. Trade unions and organizations sought its guidance and advice on several issues. It worked in cooperation with the government of British Guiana to improve working conditions and to modernize trade unions in the colony.

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