The National Trade Union Centre of Trinidad and Tobago (NATUC) celebrating its 45th Labour Day this year, hosted a march and rally for the first time in Tobago with trade unionists, workers and supporters gathering in Scarborough last Tuesday, June 19.
According to Public Services Association (PSA) and NATUC President, Watson Duke, the event commemorating “142 years of labour struggle” in Tobago.
In May 1876, enslaved Africans from Barbados who came to Tobago to work on the Roxborough Estate, rioted against poor working conditions. Known as the Belmanna Riots, the labour struggle saw the ex-slaves setting several cane fields afire on May 1, 1876, during protest action. Three days later Corporal James Henry Belmanna along with six officers were sent to arrest the arsonists. As the officers attempted to arrest persons they believed to have been involved in setting the fires, Belmanna fired a shot, killing one worker. This incensed the ex-slaves further, more riots ensued, Belmanna was beaten by an angry mob, and died on May 5. The Roxborough courthouse, more cane fields and other buildings went up in flames. The British authorities summoned a British warship and soldiers to subdue the protesters. Sixteen persons were eventually convicted for the murder of Belmanna and another 30 were imprisoned for rioting.
On Tuesday there was more celebration than drama, as workers and trade unionists gathered near the Shaw Park Cultural Complex to begin their march to James Park.
Despite an hour delay to the advertised 10 am start, the crowd was energised and excited for the day’s proceedings, unfazed by the presence of a lone female protester, armed with a placard, questioning the reason why the event was being held in Tobago and not Trinidad.
Members of the Truckers and Traders Association, led by President Horace Amede, were given the honour of leading the march, in recognition of their battles and protests over the inefficiency of the inter-island transportation service for the last two years.
Marchers danced and sang along to music from music trucks, through showery spells occasionally cooling the heat of a sweltering sun, to arrive at James Park for the official rally.
President of the Seamen and Waterfront Workers Union (SWWTU), Michael Annisette, addressing members, including those from Trinidad, in the final leg of the march, reminded them of the true reason for Labour Day celebrations in TT.
Advising that workers must continue to stand for improved working conditions in the coming years, he said:
“We are proud to be in Tobago, to be in this historical march through Scarborough. We are proud to recognise the struggle of the people of Tobago who would have fought years for the right to own a house, for the right for proper health care… to own a vehicle, for a better job, and we know by sticking together we will succeed.
“This march is not about music, it’s about the people, it is about a struggle. If we can’t understand that the we don’t understand what this historical day is all about.
“We call on all Tobagonians to be a part of this struggle for a better ferry, politicians must respect us and must not buy a boat without consulting Tobagonians, that is a disrespect to the truckers, Tobago Chamber, vendors and passengers.”