By Seminarian Paul Ramlogan, BEd, MSc Government
Unjust salaries, lack of job security, harsh and unsafe working conditions, and other unfair practices gave rise to the labour movement in Trinidad and Tobago and saw the emergence of leaders who awakened the consciousness of workers who had been suffering discrimination and exploitation. Remembrance of how it all began calls workers and employers in 2018 to a fresh initiative.
As we reflect we also recognise that Scripture is filled with the imagery of labour (Gen 2:19–20; 3:19). We see the task of Adam in naming the animals and later, because of sin, he is initiated into manual labour. This signalled a new epoch in which humankind will earn their food through sweating in the fields until we return to the earth.
We see the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Mt 20:1–16) which speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven, yet it can also speak today of employment and contractual terms of work, human economics and matters of labour.
Concerning human labour, the Church’s teachings is solidified through various encyclicals, notably Rerum Novarum (RN) 1891. This encyclical was written in response to the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the influence of Marxist ideology on the working class. RN argued against the injustice in the society, the inhumanity of employers and an unregulated system of competition. It identified the alienation of workers from the Church due to the extended gap between the social classes.
The encyclical recognised that rich and poor, capital and labour have equal rights and duties, and that the poor must be defended by the State. It speaks of the relationship between employers and employees which is manifested through a just salary that can empower the worker to support themselves and their families; that the State had the responsibility to arbitrate where there existed labour problems and guarantee justice for those who were wronged.
In relation to trade unions, the encyclical recognised that they also had a responsibility to uphold the legitimate rights of the workers and that such representation be based on truth, justice, love, and respect to the individual’s inalienable human rights.
As Church, we join our comrades in the celebration of Labour Day and it is important to reflect on the labour movement in Trinidad and Tobago; for the story of our labour movement is one that is not separated from the struggle which Rerum Novarum addressed.
The labour movement was born through the encounter with colonial capitalistic racist rule. It struggled against those who provided harsh unsafe working conditions, unjust salaries, a lack of job security, discriminatory practices, and exploitation of the human person through the constant disregard for the dignity of the worker by objectifying him and commodifying his labour.
With such conditions in Trinidad and Tobago, there emerged in the 1920s Captain Arthur Andrew Cipriani who fought to address these ills and recognised early that there was strength in numbers and as such rallied the working class to unite against the common enemy, the colonial government, which exploited the workers for capital gain.
Cipriani fought for the legalisation of trade unions, old age pensions, workers compensation and universal adult suffrage. In 1933, the Trade Union Act was passed. However, it failed to include the right of the worker to picket during a strike.
The following year, Trinidad witnessed the rise of Tubal Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler. His first major action was a hunger march from Fyzabad to Port of Spain against the British-owned Apex Oil Company.
Two years later, there would be another protest but on this occasion the uproar would lead to the brutal killing of Corporal Charlie King by those who objected to the arrest of Butler.
In 1937, there was a general strike throughout the island by the two major working groups: the oilfield workers led by Butler and the sugar cane workers led by Adrian Cola Rienzi. This action illustrated an awakening of the consciousness and self-confidence of workers and it forced the British Colonial Government to acknowledge the rights of the workers.
By World War II, there were 13 registered unions in T&T, representing workers from the various strata of the country. This early period in the labour movement has been viewed as the age of struggle which led to the establishment of workers’ rights and prepared the way for our modern labour movement.
As we celebrate Labour Day on Tuesday, we remember our responsibilities as workers in acknowledging that the positions we occupy were provided because of the struggles of those who went before, that we must perform our jobs with dignity, honesty and pride. Additionally, we must treat those we encounter with the same respect that we demand from our employers.
There is the need for those in authority to not be ‘stingy’ with their representation of only workers but also to recognise the dignity of each human being and that the task they perform is not a job but a vocation which God has entrusted to them.
If the labour movement is not careful, it runs the risk of commodifying the worker and with this comes the objectification of the worker in which their value is measured through economic terms every three to four years.