Labour problems and trade unionism in Tobago

Dr Rita Pemberton
Dr Rita Pemberton

Dr Rita Pemberton

One important development after the union of Trinidad and Tobago was the tendency to compare practices in the islands, which usually pitched Tobago on the lower end of the assessment scale. This is most evident with respect to issues of labour and the response to the poor working conditions in both islands during the first half of the 20th century.

The impact of the comparison is to minimise the situation in Tobago, as some researchers seek explanations outside labour relations to explain the reaction, or what is perceived by some as a lack of reaction, to poor wages and working conditions.

As a result, some have been led to conclude, incorrectly, that there was less inclination to resist oppression in Tobago than in Trinidad. Explanations for this difference range from the impact of religious influences to the assertion that the people were accustomed to poverty and hard times and had accepted their fate.

The reality is that the labour problems of Tobago were as real and onerous as those in Trinidad during the first half of the 20th century, and the workers did respond. That Tobago did not stage strikes and protests of the magnitude of those in Trinidad neither minimises the labour problems faced by workers nor indicates a lack of response by the workers to oppressive working conditions.

To understand the developments in Tobago, it is essential to be cognisant of its peculiarities. Firstly, Tobago was primarily agrarian, and secondly, its workforce was much smaller and therefore its resistance measures were naturally less dramatic. In addition, its different historical trajectory shaped the island’s culture and its responses differently.

The main employers were the Public Works Department, which was mainly concerned with road improvement and maintenance, the estates then in operation, and the private sector, which employed a small number of workers.

Wages were extremely low and there was little difference between those paid in the public and private sectors and the estates. Before World War I, daily wages averaged 16 -36 cents for men and 12- 18 cents for women. After 1920, they increased to 36-50 cents per day for men and 18-37½ cents per day for women.

Tobago was one of the areas with the highest post-war price increases and the highest cost of living in the colony.

The main mitigating factor was the tradition of the population of Tobago not to depend solely on the paltry wages for its survival. Since emancipation, the population had engaged in multiple employment activities. In addition to estate labour, they cultivated food crops, hunted and fished to supplement their incomes. When they became landowners later in the century they engaged more in peasant cultivation, and, after union, diversified into trafficking, small business and co-operative enterprises.

Recognising this tradition as a challenge to their control, it was the policy of plantation owners to factor these activities into calculating wages and land sales as a strategy to force workers to remain labourers.

Though largely unrecognised as a resistance movement, self-employment and multiple forms of employment constituted one of the mechanisms through which Tobago workers protested. It is therefore very important that agricultural practices on the island are recognised as an agency of both survival and resistance.

When major outbursts occurred in Trinidad in 1919, there were strikes in Tobago, where the Public Works Department workers were joined in protest against low wages and poor working conditions by private-sector and estate workers.

This stimulated the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association (TWA) to begin activity there to mobilise workers and peasants. In 1929, sections were established in Bethel and Moriah; by the end of the year, over 500 members had joined. In the following year, 11 branches, which included those at Scarborough, Roxborough, Bloody Bay and the very active Bethel/Patience Hill one, were established.

The trade union movement received a boost with the arrival of Capt Arthur Cipriani on the island in January 1930. He sought to consolidate the sections and obtain support for his petition for self –government. He received a stirring welcome from a crowd of over 5,000, and his presence stimulated a growth in membership: its 945 members increased by 1,390 by the end of his visit. A visit by Cipriani and Albert Marryshow of the Grenada Working Men’s Association in 1933 attracted crowds of labourers, whom they addressed on self-rule, federation, workers’ rights and representation.

The TWA disintegrated because of the varying interests of competing elements and quarrels between the branches. These internal conflicts resulted in a decline in participation because the organisation did not address the particular interests of some sections whose priorities were estate wages and fair prices for their crops, conditions for peasant agriculture and marketing.

The Trinidad Labour Party attracted some members, but its concentration on self-government for the colony did not address the immediate needs of Tobago workers. There was a fall-off in support for the organisation at the same time it was on the decline in Trinidad.

From 1937, trade unionism expanded. The Public Works and Public Service Workers Union (PWPSWSD), which replaced the TLP, established a branch. The Tobago Industrial Trade Union, launched by LAP Peters, increased its membership significantly in Scarborough, Plymouth and Bethel/Sherwood Park. Generally, membership of trade unions expanded, especially in the Public Works Department, and the creation of a section for domestic and allied workers in 1939 increased female membership. By 1940 branches of the PWPSWU were established across the island and within two years there were eight branches. Port and coastal-steamer workers joined the Tobago branch of the Seamen and Waterfront Workers, established in 1939.

Along with the increase in union membership came a change in protest activity.

In March 1939, a 300-strong march protested the changed hiring policy of the Public Works Department. The move was to contract work, while employment was reduced to six days per fortnight, with a significant reduction in incomes, pensions and other benefits.

More peasants, craftsmen and small business operators joined. The increase was due to two factors. First, the unions began to give attention to the wide range of issues the membership faced. They served as pressure groups articulating for improved roads, internal communications and medical services. Secondly and more importantly, because of the decline in agriculture, waged employment assumed greater importance.

Other associations such as the Tobago Livestock Association, the Tobago Peasant Farmers Association and Juvenile Farm clubs which emerged at the end of the 1930s sought to bring relief. In 1946.APT James formed the Tobago Peasants and Industrial Workers Trade union, which was the base for his entry into the island’s politics. He was elected the representative for Tobago on the Legislative Council, where he highlighted the problems of Tobago and advocated for meaningful change to improve the circumstances of its people up to the 1950s.


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