The lessons to be learned from the 16th June 1948 is that the life force of sugar workers was shed, leading to the fatality of Lallabaggie Dookie, Rambarran, Harry and Pooran. 71 years to date, we remember our brothers and sisters, our comrades, fellow Guyanese. And as we do so we must solemnly swear, believe and strive to ensure that no worker’s life should be lost in a struggle for social justice.
We came frighteningly close to repeating this history in 1999 when unarmed striking public servants were shot at and wounded by the Guyana police. Workers’ rights are human rights and human rights mean social justice. But as precious as life is, as a people we must be no less timid, no less fearful than the Enmore Martyrs in risking their lives in order to better their lives.
History is replete with examples of labour’s struggles. In Guyana, for example, we recall the struggles of our brothers and sisters who were forced to cross the Middle Passage and their labour brutally taken to enrich and satisfy the greed of others. Even subjected further to the indignities of being classified as subhuman, ranking equally with the cattle. We also remember our brothers and sisters who laboured as indentures, working under harsh conditions, disrespected, subjected to exploitative wages and conditions of work, way below their labour’s worth.
Today we remember the struggles and sacrifices of those who came before us. Those who paid the ultimate price. Today we must recognise, as we move forward, that workers have the right enshrined in the Constitution that dictates our governance, in the Labour Laws, international conventions and statutes. These are rights that we as a generation must recognise the value of and protect. These are rights that we must duly recognise as progressive human entitlement. These are not favours granted anyone, from the rank-and-file among us to the top executive. The safety of one person/group’s right is secured when the rights of all individuals/groups are respected and upheld.
Today we must recognise that the struggle for social justice was birthed not out of the benevolence of any government, but out of the struggles and sacrifices of workers. Workers like the five martyrs; and those mentioned before, who we oftentimes fail to put into perspective as the forerunners of organised labour, even though not recognised as such and with no entitlement at those times. Today we have in Guyana, enshrined in our Constitution, the right to freedom of association (Article 147) and the Trade Union Recognition Act.
If we take a close look at the history of labour’s struggles over time, we will recognise that as an individual we might achieve but as a collective will achieve. We learn the valuable lessons of solidarity, of one for all and all for one, of united we stand and divided we shall fall. As we remember the sacrifices of our brave working colleagues, let us today recognise that what divide us is not as important as what connect us.
For oftentimes the things that divide us are things that we have no control over, and the things that we have commonality on are the things that we can control and influence for the good of all. For the good of sugar workers. For the good of bauxite workers. For the good of teachers, public servants. For the good of university workers, workers at Aroaima and Kwakwani. For the good of any worker, in every sector, employed and self-employed; past, present and potential. From North to South, East to West of this beautiful country, this resource-rich country, this peaceful country; for indeed we are a peaceful people.
We are a generous people, giving even of the little we have to support our brothers and sisters across the seas in our pursuit of worldwide peace and progress. We have created no wars, envied nor sought to take what is not ours from our neighbours. We are not a perfect people. We have our internal struggles which pale in comparison to many countries around the world.
We are cognisant also that labour struggles against those who seek to diminish our strength and importance, using various tools and strategies to attack collective labour. Sometimes to satisfy ego. Sometimes to create chaos and division to weaken our solidarity. Sometimes by joining forces with foreign nations to violate our rights and sovereignty. Sometimes to undermine and marginalise us economically.
Today we must use this occasion to call on the Government of Guyana, as we commemorate the struggle of the martyrs, to recognise the importance of giving labour its due prominence. How better can we honour the sacrifice of these working-class heroes than giving to those who came after them a Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, in order to ensure the protection of those who today are still fighting for advancement and protection and recognition of their worth.
As we speak about the exploitation of oil and the potential for enhancement of our economy, our potential enrichment as a nation must not fool us into believing that our human resources do not matter. For even as the black gold flows, even as we utilise the most modern technology and use capital, it takes workers to make the engine turns. Workers are the most valuable resource of this country. When working in an environment of mutual respect where land, labour, capital become combine with a caring, progressive and visionary government and a more humanist entrepreneurial class, development in its widest context becomes a sure thing.
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