Yesterday, the commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of Enmore Martyrs’ Day was postponed because of inclement weather. Otherwise, it would have most likely been marked by a few officials of the state laying wreaths at the Monument in Enmore; the invocation of the names of the five individuals killed – Harry, Pooran, Surujballi, Rambarran and Lallabagee, and possibly the remembrance of the fourteen others injured.
The occasion is observed almost solely for its political impact: the slaughter of the five sugar workers by the Police, acting on behalf of the sugar planters, catalysed the formation of the People’s Progressive Party.
The leader of the PPP, Dr Cheddi Jagan, is on record as saying that, at the funeral of the martyrs, he took a solemn oath to fight the colonial state of Guyana, which he believed was responsible for the tragedy.
But we should remember that the workers who were killed and injured had been simply protesting their dire working conditions.
While the leaders may have been concerned about the wider oppressive conditions and their causations, the sugar workers, like the ordinary folks everywhere, were fixated by their day-to-day travails. We have to cast our minds back to 1948 and remember the realities of the sugar workers.
They were all, by and large, living in logies that had been well described by Rev C.F. Andrews, a confidante of Gandhi: “The filth which has been thrown outside the door (where no drain exists at all) must have accumulated in such thick layers that the ground in front to the lines (ranges) were almost like a cesspit… The buildings themselves were in a dilapidated condition.
In some cases the floor was entirely of mud, and there had been no attempt whatever to raise the building above the level of the mud outside.”
Hospital facilities, a right on paper, had been reduced to the doling out of a cure-all syrup. Potable water was almost unknown, and it was not unusual for latrines to be constructed over the same trenches from which drinking and cooking water was secured.
But it was the working conditions of the sugar workers that were to prove to be the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. From the time of slavery, the system for the reaping of the sugar cane was by a “cut and drop” method: the stalk of the cane was cut at the base and at the top, and then dropped onto the ground.
These were then collected by other workers, frequently women, who then loaded them into punts for transportation to the factory.
The sugar producers in 1948 arbitrarily decided to cut costs and combine the two jobs into one without giving the workers who would now “cut and load” the proportionate increase.
At a conference of the workers and the recognised union, Man Power Citizens’ Association (MPCA), they determined that a forty-cent per ton increase was equitable, but the sugar producers only conceded a four-cent increase.
The MPCA was accused of not pursuing the workers’ cause diligently, and a rival union, GIWU – supported by Dr Jagan – took up cudgels on their behalf. A strike was called and the rest, as they say, is history.
But while today the focus, as we pointed out, is on the larger picture, it is incumbent on the rest of the country not to forget the continuing plight of the sugar workers. Their lot, while not as dire as in 1948, is still a grim and brutal one.
To deal with the plummeting market for sugar occasioned by the unilateral breach of the Sugar Protocol by the EU, the wages and working conditions of the workers have come under severe pressure, so as to lower production costs.
The rationale that justifies our sticking with sugar, let us not forget, however, is to generate foreign exchange — which benefits all Guyana.
Recently, sugar workers in Berbice – where the bulk of our sugar is now produced – went out on strike to highlight their abysmal living conditions. Most of the hard-fought gains earned in 1948 and after have been eroded.
The Prime Minister, while not turning troops on them, was totally unsympathetic to their pleas. We hope that the concrete message of Enmore Martyrs’ Day has not been lost in the quest for transcendent meanings.
Let us not kill the goose that lays the golden egg.
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