Will There Ever be Justice for Workers?

by Faviola Whittier

1515 – Spanish priest Bartolme de las Casas argues that enslaving the First Peoples in encomiendas is wrong because the indigenous people of the Caribbean were equal to the European colonisers. He convinces the Spanish King Charles I to end the encomienda system.

1518 – Spanish King Charles I grants permission to transport the first 4,000 African slaves to the West Indies.

1833 – The United Kingdom makes slavery illegal in its colonies, including the island of Trinidad and Tobago.

1834 – The Governor of Trinidad announces apprenticeship – enslaved people have to continue working on plantations without pay for 6 more years. Full emancipation was not achieved until 1838, after years of protests.

1845 – The Fath Al Razack brings the first East Indian indentured labourers to Trinidad to work on the sugar plantations.

1884 – Labour tensions rise in sugar plantations, leading to a ban on all processions of East Indians entering towns. British soldiers open fire East Indians celebrating Hosay in San Fernando.

From the beginning of our colonial history to the present post-Independent era in Trinidad and Tobago, labour has been exploited. No one worked for their own benefit – those who owned land or factories refused to get their hands dirty (a fact noted in letters of the time by Spanish officials reporting on the lack of development in the colonies). Those who worked could only choose between labour to benefit someone else (i.e. the factory/landowners) or harsh punishments. Violent rebellions were inevitable, as were more creative forms of resistance that allowed workers to escape both work and punishment.

This is our history – not the world we live in today. What changed?

We did.

We educated ourselves about workers’ rights and trade unionism. We organised ourselves. We raised up our own leaders who understood the unfairness of being expected to give your all in a job with bad pay and bad conditions.

The story of June 19, 1937 has been told in many places, including the death of Charlie King when he attempted to arrest Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Bulter in Fyzabad. As important as June 19 is, we should also pay attention to what happened after – the establishment of trade unions. Adrian Cola Rienzi was the first President General of five trade unions including the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union and the All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factory Workers Union.

All the rights and benefits that workers enjoy today were won by workers who came together in trade unions. They were not given by any politician or business owner or manager. Vacations, pensions, maternity leave, workman’s compensation, sick leave, bonuses… all were victories won by the people of this country.

The losers of those battles, who still live more comfortably than workers, have not given up. They are still refusing to get their hands dirty and are taking advantage of others who work for them. Caroni closed, and the workers still have not gotten their promised compensation. ArcelorMittal closed, and workers were denied their severance benefits. Petrotrin was closed and the workers were denied justice.

Knowing our history, can we wait for someone to save us? Or, knowing our history and how much our own people achieved, will we stand up and fight for ourselves?

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