As I listened to the Prime Minister exhorting the public on Monday past to stay home, not to sell food on the street in front of closed restaurants, not to buy food on the street, limiting opening hours for those businesses that can open to 6 am to 8 pm, another scenario from Trinidad’s history came unbidden to my mind. The year was 1921. Indentureship was abolished four years earlier in 1917, World War II had ended in 1918 and people in colonial Trinidad and Tobago worked mainly in sugar plantations, in the newly established energy industry or in government service.
There was no such thing as equal pay for men and women. On the higher paid echelons in the government and in commercial enterprises that had been set up before the war, men were paid $29 per month and women $19. Women had been earlier employed in the energy industry in clearing land and other physical labour but that was pretty well finished by this time – receptionists and secretaries were all male and continued for the next couple of decades.
The difference in wage levels was justified by the Labour Ministry in England on the grounds that men were the wage-earners and had to support their families, which included mothers and children. Single women could support themselves on less because they needed less.
Single women could be employed in small shops as shop assistants. They were rarely single parents. For many women traditionally marriage was regarded as a too expensive and not always welcome institution. Store clerks worked often 12.5 hours a day to support their families, but the women shop assistants had to cope with domestic work as well. It made for a long day. Then, as now, most people earning an income in TT were either small businesspeople or were employed by them. This allowed people to make an often modest but adequate income. So when the first Shop Hours Ordinance was passed in 1921 after a protest from women shop assistants – after the war ended protests were allowed in 1919 – it lowered hours of work from the usual brutal 12-and-a half to nine. It meant in some cases that wages took a cut as they were often calculated on a per hour basis, but it did provide exemptions for the small businesses, what are now called "perimeter businesses", the mom and pop shops that stayed open later and provided goods and services to people coming off late shifts from the docks, from medical services or the oilfields. Post war TT was also affected by the famous worldwide depression of 1929-1930, just as it has been by the economic depression we are now going through.
By now, it will have become apparent to the discerning reader that I am building up to disclosure of a parallel to today’s lockdown situation. History repeats itself. I am not even mentioning the infamous Spanish Flu that spread across the world during and after the first World War, although that will be taken into account, as many of the returning citizens released from their war service had come home carrying that virus, but so did the many European refugee families looking for survival from the war or religious persecution that had settled here. As many of them had spent their savings on transport and were unable to speak English but were fluent in Spanish, French, Yiddish, German and Polish, they became what the Jamaicans call “higglers” or set up small shops where all members of the family including wives, children, mothers, siblings and grandparents were employed on a joint basis, not “for hire”. As the years passed with hard work and incredible sacrifices their businesses grew and are now referred to as big businesses.
As the decades crept along, the shop assistants, the women who had agitated for better conditions actually thought that the government cared for them but, as the worldwide recession receded very slowly outside the energy industry, employment was hard to find then, as it will be here post covid19.
Public schools and religious-based ones had long been established. Free primary schooling was compulsory for children in Trinidad before it was in the UK. Most people were able to read and write. Their status and their value as employees rose with their education levels, as happens now with computer literacy. For women there were certain restrictions. To work in a store women were expected to be literate and numerate and to look “presentable”. If you were an unwed mother you hid that unfortunate fact or would not be employable on the basis of not being "respectable". I know of one case in a shop on Frederick Street where a young male employee who refused to marry the mother of the child he had fathered was dismissed on those grounds as he was obviously not "respectable" either.
Professor Reddock in her book Women’s Labour and Politics in Trinidad & Tobago, notes, “By 1936 the effects of the economic depression were even more widely felt and neither wages nor increased employment matched the increasing cost of living.” In 1938 pressure from the Chamber of Commerce, the Shop Hours Ordinance was passed in order to remove the “unfair influence that small shops had over ‘big business’ by being able to remain open for longer hours. Opening hours were now limited and shops had to close by 6 pm.
Ironically, this week’s government pandemic orders were similar. Small “cook shops”, roadside vendors, the small self-employed have been ordered to close. Businesses are encouraged to pay their employees while they are locked down although it is obvious that perimeter businesses and roadside vendors simply will not be able to. The Chamber of Commerce exhorts us to “obey the law and stay closed.”
According to all the history books, we survived. And, of course we will survive the next few weeks as well. What will happen after the three weeks are up? In 1939 a new war saved Trinidad with new army encampments, new employment, new demographics, and a changed post-war society. What will our post-covid19 society look like?