The People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C)-elected Member of Parliament (MP) Gillian Burton-Persaud has consented to the Trade Union’s call for Labour to have equal prominence in society, and the advancing of this call, by bringing a Motion to the National Assembly for debate and vote on the establishment of a ministry that recognises Labour’s place.
This Motion, seconded by PPP-elected Komal Chand, is now before the House awaiting attention on the floor.
The absence of a Ministry of Labour is a disservice to Guyanese and the historical development of our society. Our development can be traced to the exploitation of Amerindian labour, in the first instance; followed by the Transatlantic Slave Trade that recorded the exploitation of Africans who were deemed chattel, i.e. property and cargo to be treated at the whim of ‘their owners’.
The world continues to recognise the slave trade and the enslavement of Africans as the gravest tragedy committed on humankind. It was this era where a people were exploited in the building of canals, roads, and putting in place the physical infrastructures that formed the foundation of this country, we today call Guyana. Millions of lives were lost. Blood saturated this land, the farms and plantations.
It was grit and determination to enjoy freedom from the system of oppression that witnessed rebellions and resistances that secured emancipation which is recorded amongst the earlier quests for labour to be treated with deserving respect and dignity. This fight did not bring full attainment. The successor system, indentureship, saw labour being brought here from Africa, China, India and Portugal. This new classification of workers (indentured servants) was also undervalued and faced new forms of exploitation.
It was in the indentured era that workers commenced a new form of organising which led to the creation of trade unions. In 1905 dockworkers in Georgetown, under the leadership of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, challenged the Crown, the merchant class and well-connected to provide better working conditions for workers in this country. This challenge had ripple effects throughout the British Commonwealth, earning Guyana and Critchlow the primacy of place as the first to organise and him, the Father of Trade Unionism in the British Commonwealth.
In an organised manner, dockworkers and the wider public, under Critchlow’s leadership, fought for the establishment of the Landlord and Tenants Act. This gave protection to tenants, who in the past were exploited by their landlord.
The 20th century evolution of our society saw the trade union, under Critchlow’s leadership, being the vanguard in shaping a political agenda to bring respectability to citizens, here and across the Caribbean. This movement represented the voice and desires of workers who were paid pittance for their labour, working under hazardous conditions, in a society rampant with discrimination.
The initial call for universal education, voting, housing and healthcare – the trade union rightfully takes credit. So too for prison reform; eight-hour work day; 40-hour work week; paid sick, maternity and vacation leave; and internal self-government which paved the way for Independence and Republican status.
The trade union represents the views of labour in an organised manner. It is labour that is exerted in production, productivity and development, from childhood to adulthood, in the workplace and wider society. Consequently, labour must not be seen through the narrow prism of avoiding and solving strikes. Labour represents every facet of man’s activities.
In tracing our development, we’ll recognise that labour is not only at its centre; it’s the nucleus of society. Without people there is no society. Without labour (brains and muscles) there’s no development.
Prior to internal self-government there was a Department of Labour. At the attainment of internal self-government there was a Minister of Labour. At the attainment of Independence, a Ministry of Labour was established, encompassing responsibilities for issues that have cross cutting impact on workers’ welfare, at work and in the wider society.
For instance, under this ministry the trade union, in collaboration with the Government, realised the National Insurance Scheme (NIS), supported the national trust for public education, articulated the desire for universal health care, and housing development that saw several housing schemes, through the self-help drive, built through the trade union and other agencies.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO), a member of the United Nations’ family, will be celebrating its centenary next year. It is one of the first international organisations an independent Guyana joined. The ILO is the only organisation where Government, Employer and Workers’ Representative (trade union) will meet to deliberate and arrive at Conventions to guide the relationship among the three, in the workplace and wider society.
In fact, the ILO addresses every facet of labour’s activity- whether workers are organised or not – and in many instances its conventions address impact on activities in the communities where people reside. For instance, Child Labour which exists in sweat shops and homes run by individuals, human trafficking and retirement are also activities addressed within the sphere of the ILO.
Concomitant with identifying problems within society is also the necessity of moving to solve them through policy, laws and programmes to secure real change. The ILO has 189 Conventions. As a member, Guyana is duty bound to ensure the conventions are implemented and policed through programmes and law. Of these conventions, about 16 attend to Social Protection. This leaves more than 170 to be attended to, of which seven are considered Fundamental Rights. This reality has historically been attended to by a Ministry of Labour that treated with all in equal measures.
The absence of focusing on Labour as a ministry denies recognition of our historical struggles, achievements and continued pursuit for the creation of a just society, represented in the philosophical guidance of these conventions which are intimately intertwined to our social, cultural, economic and political advancement.
The Trade Union Movement is not asking for a new ministry. The Movement is asking for equal treatment. Labour can find equal prominence with another ministry. Our history has shown permeations such as the Ministry of Health, Housing and Labour; Ministry of Manpower, Labour, Cooperatives and Social Security; Ministry of Labour and Social Security; Ministry of Labour and Human Services.
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