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Celebrating Vincentian workers: some thoughts

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Over the years, we have come to expect the trade unions to highlight the significance and struggle of workers, especially on May 1, the day set aside to celebrate the long and difficult struggle that really started with the slaves. The emancipated people were kept out of the formal political process and used petitions and protests to make their demands. The 1935 ‘riots’ was a turning point. It made the political and economic colonial elite aware that it could no longer be business as usual and their concerns had to be part of a new political agenda. Their political consciousness grew and trade unions gained legal recognition. In 1951, with the advent of Adult Suffrage, they gave full support to George Charles’ United Workers, Peasants and Ratepayers Union. With Independence and political control in the hands of their own people they anticipated better days with their unions pushing their concerns. The story today is one of betrayal by those who claimed to be fighting on their behalf.

Life goes on and the credibility of some of the union bosses is at its lowest ebb. But the story is more than unions. From the days of slavery to today, the working people toiled on the plantations to develop this country. Arrowroot, cotton and bananas provided an opportunity for the growth of peasant and small farmers. Although the country remained agriculturally and fishing-based, the emergence of new business enterprises attracted rural people to Kingstown. Their children had been educated by their toils on their own small plots, on the plantations and in the surrounding seas. They found employment in teaching, nursing, the police, the public service, banking, and private businesses.

Today, as we move into the 38th year of Independence, all is not well with our working people, who have felt betrayed. They exist in a society that is totally screwed up politically and do not genuinely feel part of it. The Government is the major employer and some have to play games to get along. Others are frustrated because their welfare is dependent on political posturing. Our society’s values have been overturned. Survival is a matter not for the fittest, but for those who can master the games. So, a lot of games are being played. There is so much that is wrong and we hear complaints about the attitude of workers, about their unreliability, their time watching and a host of other ills. While we despise these, the situation is a complex one to which all of us have either contributed or have become compliant with the absurdities that exist.

Despite all of this, we must recognize the contribution of workers who have kept the society ticking over, even with the obstacles they face. I must briefly highlight the plight of those who work in the homes of the ‘expanding’ middle class. They are the forgotten ones, despite the importance of their jobs. They are taken for granted, are grossly underpaid, especially those who travel long distances to work. Some employers do not even make their NIS payments. Some work long hours, even on Sundays. They have increasingly to put up with insults and are sometimes treated like slaves. They continue to toil because of the absence of other forms of employment, since they exist in an economy that has stagnated, and offers few opportunities.

The story of workers and their existence is a complex one and a lot more must be brought into the picture. We should, however, never take what they do for granted, whether they are teachers, nurses, police officers, sanitation workers or home helpers. Without their toils, this society will not survive.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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