Allow me on behalf of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU), to join with the Chairman and others in welcoming everyone here and to express GAWU’s appreciation to you for attending this 65th Commemoration Activity of the Enmore Martyrs. We are all here to pay homage and respect to those five gallant young men who paid for their engagement in a struggle for the betterment of their working and living conditions which our colonial masters sustained and resisted to reform. Their martyrdom, in the ensuing years, served as a catalyst for the many changes they would have wanted.
Indeed, the lives of the Enmore Martyrs were snuffed out in one of the just struggles by workers who were made to suffer greatly in the heyday of colonialism in our country. When they began to protest against their atrocious working and living conditions, they were not aware that their protest and struggle would have impelled the plantocracy and the colonial regime to resort to their killing. Since their demise, their deaths have been commemorated yearly, not only for us to remember the past, but for us to be conscious of the exploitative and cruel system that was perpetuated by the plantocracy and for us to be on guard to ensure that thet emergence of new forms of oppression of our people are resisted in their early stages.
At this yearly event at the Martyrs’ gravesite here at Le Repentir, it is relevant notwithstanding repetition, to reflect on some salient aspects of the Martyrs’ demise.
Basdeo Mangru in his book – A History of East Indian Resistance on the Guyana Sugar Estates – 1869-1948 – wrote: “A contemporary, vividly described the effect of the shooting: We saw Lala Bagi dead on the mortuary table, shot through the back. We saw 19 year old Pooran lying cold dead with a gaping three inch wound above the pelvis, with his guts hanging out and another bullet through his leg. Rambarran was lying dead with clenched fists, two bullet wounds causing his death. Dhookie also known as Surujballi died in the hospital the same day and Harry Jug died the next day from a bullet into his spine. They were all shot in the back.”
To give you a brief description of the conditions prevailing in the sugar industry which sparked the workers struggle, allow me now to quote from Cde Ashton Chase’s Book – “A History of Trade Unionism in Guyana – 1900 to 1961” He said “The origin of the strike was first of all general expression of dissatisfaction by the workers with their miserable conditions of work and life, notwithstanding the existence of recognised unions. Secondly, the failure of the recognized unions (Man Power Citizens’ Association and British Guiana Workers league) over the years to really alleviate the harsh conditions under which they worked or to secure even a fair improvement in their real wages. Thirdly, dissatisfaction with the new system of work for cane cutters, to wit, cut and load. Fourthly, frustration with the machinery set up with the approval of the recognised union for resolving differences at estate level. And last but not least, the demand for recognition of a new trade union under a militant leadership to represent their interest.”
Since the Martyrdom of the five, the ruthless killings of sugar workers have ceased. Indeed, it was so when an account is taken of the killings of the workers at Devonshire Castle, Non Pariel, Friends, Lusignan, Rose Hall, Ruimveldt and Leonara. Historian Basdeo Mangru in his Book observed and I quote “The toll, too, was heavy between 1872 and June, 1948 a total of 54 sugar workers were gunned down with scores wounded, some maimed or scarred for life.”
Indeed, the 1948 Enmore shooting was a turning point. Dr. Cheddi Jagan, at the time a member of the Legislative Council, was a major supporter of the strike. He was deeply disturbed by the shooting to death of the martyrs. In his famous Book the West on Trial he recorded that at the gravesite of the martyrs, he made a silent pledge:- “I would dedicate my entire life to the cause of the struggle of the Guyanese people against bondage and exploitation.”
Dr Jagan’s pro-workers agitation and struggle to end colonial rule in Guyana and his mobilization of large sections of the Guyanese people were instrumental in ending the overwhelming power and authority of the plantocracy. This explains the background to the end of the cold blooded shooting of sugar workers.
The Enmore massacre prompted the appointment of the Venn Commission by the Colonial Government in October, 1948.
Some of the recommendations of the Venn Commission were:
• The prevention of girls and women from working in water.
• Fresh drinking water to be provided aback.
• Social amenities such as bathrooms and canteens to be provided for factory workers.
• Children born out of Hindu or Muslim marriages, and their mothers, to benefit from compensation awarded under the Workmen’s Compensation Ordinance.
• Measures to be taken to prevent the employment of child labour in the sugar industry.
• That all the logies or ranges, as they were referred to, be cleared and sugar workers be rehoused.
The Commission noted that the large numbers of female workers of the industry were given laborious tasks. Unfortunately, the Commission did not find favour in the recognition of the GIWU in the place of the discredited MPCA.
Nevertheless the sugar workers struggled for twenty-eight (28) years after that Martyrdom at Enmore, to have the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) – the genuine union of the workers choice recognized by the Sugar Producers Association. On that red letter day – Old Years’ Day 1975 – GAWU won 98 per cent of the votes to comprehensively defeat the MPCA to become the bargaining agent of the field and factory workers in the sugar industry. Formal recognition of the Union was accorded when the Union and the Sugar Producers Association appended the Recognition Agreement on February 27, 1976.
Today, GAWU has fulfilled many of the dreams of the martyrs. GAWU has the highest regard for accountability. It is probably the only Union that has completed its Audit for 2012 and submitted its 2013 Returns to the Registrar of Trade Unions. It is one of the few Unions that observed its constitution to the letter and spirit. Its periodical Congress is statutorily held and its Office Bearers are all elected freely and democratically at elections.
The Martyrs would have also been happy to learn that their struggle has contributed to the enactment of the Trade Union Recognition Act. Such legislation had it been in place in 1948 would have occasioned the removal of the MPCA and allow the sugar workers by election to have a Union of their choice.
Since the Enmore tragedy and the recognition of GAWU the living and working conditions of sugar workers have significantly changed. Today, different challenges face the industry. The decline in the price of our sugar exported to Europe and poor performance of the industry, especially since 2005 when sugar production declined below 300,000 tonnes per year. Those who manage the Industry have not been able to put it right. This year, the industry has recorded its worst first crop with a production of merely 47,590 tonnes sugar. Seemingly, the industry cannot satisfy its announced target of 240,000 tonnes sugar this year. The industry’s survival and viability rest on, among other things, its production which ought to reach about 300,00 tonnes within the next two (2) to three (3) years.
All Guyanese are beneficiaries of the sugar industry and would no doubt join with me to be supportive of a viable sugar industry and in this way we shall all pay our best homage to the cause of the five martyrs.
Their sacrifice has been etched in the history of struggle against colonial exploitation in Guyana!
History will forever be grateful to the five Enmore heroes of the working class!
Their example will not be forgotten for it helped in the ultimate struggle for Guyana’s freedom.
Long live the Enmore Martyrs’!
Long live the Working Class!