SEVENTY-ONE years ago on this date, five sugar workers were shot and killed by police at the Enmore Estate, East Coast Demerara. The victims were Lallabaggie and Dookie from Enmore, and Rambarran, Harry and Pooran from Enterprise/Non Pareil. The story that led to this incident has to do with the workers’ demand for improved working conditions which is an element in workers’ struggle for self-determination. On this fateful day, about 400 workers were on strike to bring attention to their displeasure with the “cut and load” system which they wanted to be abolished.
Sugar workers were arguing that the “cut and load” system be replaced by the “cut and drop.” While the former entailed cane-cutters having to load the canes they cut, the latter would have allowed for division of labour, where one set of workers would cut, and another set load.
This struggle was against the backdrop of the desire of the workers to have the right to freedom of association respected and their choice to be represented by the Guyana Industrial Workers Union (GIWU), which is today known as the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU). GIWU was, in 1946, co-founded by Cheddi Jagan and Joseph P. Lachmansingh, with the former departing from the Man Power Citizens’ Association (MPCA), which he joined in 1943 on his return to the then British Guiana.
In that period, outside of the trade union movement, the struggles of workers for improvement in their conditions of work and standard of living were supported by the Political Affairs Committee (PAC), which was co-founded in 1946 by Jagan, Janet Jagan, Ashton Chase and Jocelyn Hubbard.
Workers’ struggles of this period also included that of one-man-one-vote (universal suffrage) and internal self-government, among other socio-economic and political issues that became principles for the movement cemented at the 1926 Caribbean Conference for Labour Leaders, hosted in Guyana with the participation of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow.
It should be said that while the MPCA, at the time, represented sugar workers, the workers considered it a “company union” and doubted its quality of representation. With respect to the right to freedom of association, systems should have been put in place for the workers to express their will in determining which of the unions they reposed confidence in. This fundamental principle was never applied until 1976, which led to the recognition of GAWU as the sole bargaining agent for workers that were represented by the MPCA.
Thus, the 1948 struggle carried with it both industrial and political intent and desire. Given the co-mingling of this relationship between Jagan and the sugar workers, one can understand the union’s affiliation to the party. Outside of the political influence, sugar workers were prepared to challenge the estate owners for weeks, given that the strike had commenced on 22nd April, which speaks to an unflinching determination. When the estate authorities called in the colonial police, the workers did not relent, preferring instead to challenge and confront.
This led to an exchange between workers and the police who shot the latter, killing the five and injuring others. This massacre led to the rallying of workers and citizens across the country, in what evidently was seen as the wrong way to defuse the situation or resolve the conflict.
When the five were buried at the Le Repentir Cemetery, there was a procession that walked from Enmore to the cemetery. The demands by the people of the colonial authority to conduct a Commission of Inquiry into the event were loud and clear and met with the needed response in the establishment of such a commission.
The determination of the sugar workers and the struggle that led to the demise of some have not been in vain and have been immortalised. In 1976, the Government of Guyana, based on the recommendation by the Inter-American Organisation of Workers (ORIT), which the Guyana Trades Union Congress via then General-Secretary Joseph Pollydore pursued, the five became known as martyrs.
A monument was built at Enmore in these workers’ honour. This monument represents a covenant with the workers of Guyana that never, ever again the guns of the State will be turned on them in their pursuit for self-determination. In this another year of commemoration, the pivotal role sugar workers played in the nation’s self-determination, some of which resulted in injuries and the loss of lives, is remembered.