Labour movement has gone astray- Witter

Published on 2011-05-05 12:55:05 in News

The labour movement has strayed from being a champion of the people to become the province of just the salaried and wage earners, a development which could lead it into irrelevance Guyana Trade Union Congress (GTUC) President Norris Witter told on Tuesday.

His comment followed that of social activist Andaiye who last week called on the movement to widen its membership to include the informal labour sector and unsalaried individuals.

In acknowledging the call Witter said it was not a new concept since that was how it was done in the days of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, who is regarded as the father of the labour movement in Guyana.

“Critchlow also paid quite a lot of attention to the unorganized and those persons who were not employees or who did not enjoy the employee/employer relationship, the self-employed and so on. I think what has happened over the years, the labour movement has limited its activities to only the wage and salary earners which is wrong,” he said.

“We operate more as a trade union rather than a labour movement and I think we need to once again refocus our attention as a labour movement rather than a trade union movement.”

Witter noted that there is a significant difference between the labour movement and the trade union movement although the two terms have been used interchangeably.

“If we were to continue to organise in the manner in which we have been organizing, that is focusing exclusively on wage and salary earners, what you are going to find is a continuation of the kind of configuration that currently exists and which to my mind makes it attractive for particularly the race-based parties to play on,” Witter stated.

According to him, if the unions were to extend their activities into the non-traditional areas such as the shops on Regent Street, the market vendors, domestics and the fisherfolk, that would influence the kind of policies they develop and change their perception as it relates to national politics.


Housework has economic value – women’s activist Andaiye

Published on 2011-05-03 12:30:51 in News

The work women do at home needs to be valued like any other income generating activity according to women’s rights activist Andaiye.

She articulated the position on Friday at an event organised by the University of Guyana Students for Social Change (UGSSC) at the insitution’s Turkeyen Campus. The activity was held under the theme Poverty, Development and Labour in Guyana.

“Our argument is first of all this thing called housework and this thing that is called care giving is work. It is true that women raise their children and look after their children out of love; it is also true that things they do out of love is work,” the Red Thread representative said.

According to Andaiye, what that work amounts to is the “production and reproduction of the whole labour force.”  Further, she argued, in addition to the social meaning people generally ascribe to it, there is also an economic underpinning since those activities are fundamental to the production of wealth.

However, she noted that there is also a social cost attached to that work which many mothers in Guyana are paying heavily. Andaiye stated that there are many women working in one part of the country, or even in the Caribbean, to earn wages while their families live elsewhere.

Additionally, she singled out the large number of women working as security guards and the exploitations they endure at the hands of their employers.

“The point we’re making in relation to the social cost of that is that if you oblige people who are parents, and if you oblige above all mothers, to work in that way then you must know that those people are not paying a great deal of attention to children. What they are doing is neglecting children in order to be able to feed children and then the whole society pays for the results of that,” Andaiye stated.

According to her, the blame should fall squarely on the way the economy is organised whereby there is a huge informal sector where people are “super-exploited.” She also noted the divisions in the labour movement along the lines of race and politics and called on the movement to address the issue of gender.

Andaiye stated that the unions have turned their backs on a potential source of a tremendous amount of power by ignoring the informal sector which is largely made up of women.

“Try to imagine Guyana for the next week with every housewife on strike, with every mother on strike, with every market vendor on strike, with every shop assistant on strike; we could close Guyana down from those locations that are presently so disrespected,” she declared.

The UGSSC is an on-campus society which states one of its purpose as being “to agitate on and of campus for changes that are conducive to the accomplishment of the age-old ideals of freedom, justice and equality.”

It also lists social research and the development of practical and implementable solutions for social problems among its intended objectives.

Radical Labour: Another Reflection

Alissa Trotz is editor of the In the Diaspora Column.

(This is one of a series of weekly columns from Guyanese in the diaspora and others with an interest in issues related to Guyana and the Caribbean)

Over the weekend both Stabroek News and Kaieteur News ran important pieces that addressed the significance of May Day, now celebrated all over the world. In its Sunday editorial, titled Radical Labour, Kaieteur News reminded readers that May Day started in the United States in 1886 as a general strike for an eight hour work day, with immigrant workers playing leading roles. It is interesting to reflect on this geographical beginning in light of the challenges facing labour and labour organizers across North America today. This is perhaps expressed nowhere more vividly than in the state of Wisconsin, where a Republican governor has introduced policies intended to destroy the collective bargaining rights of public workers. And across the US border just last Friday, in a decision that has shocked many labour advocates and organizers, the Supreme Court of Canada denied Ontario farm workers – numbering in the tens of thousands and many of whom are temporary migrant workers from countries like Mexico, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago – the right to join unions for collective bargaining like other workers across the province. These are difficult times indeed.

In formulating an answer to the question, what is the work to be done, both Stabroek News and Kaieteur News provocatively challenged the trade union movement in Guyana to take a long hard look at itself. The Kaieteur News, in editorials on Saturday and Sunday, made the point clearly that a key piece of the work involves thinking about divide and rule politics, and the ways in which the trade union movement has operated to restrict, and not expand, the scope of workers’ demands.

On Saturday the Stabroek News reported on a forum, titled Poverty, Development and Labour in Guyana, hosted by the University of Guyana Students for Social Change, with labour attorney Randolph Kirton, General Secretary of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union Seepaul Narine and social activist and Red Thread member Andaiye. This was an excellent initiative on the part of the student organizers, and one hopes it will continue. Notwithstanding examples from our past (like the establishment of the Sugar and Bauxite Worker’s Unity Committee in the early 1980s under the PNC dictatorship), the divisions facing the trade union movement today stand in the way of effectively addressing the difficult conditions faced by the majority of Guyanese women and men, a point made by Saturday’s Kaieteur News editorial when it talked about the likelihood of three different rallies. In this context, the role of the university should not be underestimated. Events like this can offer a space for conversations which bring people together – and young people in particular – to discuss key issues affecting people in their everyday lives, away from the politicking, the nastiness and the tribalism that have become such a feature of Guyanese life at home and in the diaspora.

Andaiye’s observation, that “widening the trade union base to include various groups of currently unorganized workers could be the key to bridging the racial and political divide pervasive in the local labour movement,” seems to me to be the kind of radical and necessary move that is required. The significance of what she is calling for becomes clear if we look at the labour unrest that swept through the English-speaking Caribbean between 1934 and 1939 during the Great Depression. The strikes, riots and demonstrations were the combined result of high unemployment and terrible living conditions, and the absence of channels through which people could air their grievances. In addition to an unrepresentative political system, trade unions were also illegal across much of the region at that time. The disturbances were therefore not just about challenging social and economic conditions. They were also anti-colonial struggles, raising key questions about representative government in the Caribbean.

The response of the British government was to announce a Commission of Inquiry, led by Lord Moyne, into the conditions in its colonies in the Caribbean. The British were famous for these Inquiries – into indentureship, into the state of the sugar industry – which have left us with a wealth of rich data, and which historians have convincingly shown were investigations that in the final instance shared an investment in the maintenance of the imperial status quo. Members of the Moyne Commission travelled across the region between 1938 and 1939, and produced a comprehensive document that was embargoed until after the war for fear that it would be used as enemy propaganda. Only its recommendations were released in 1939. It is a significant document, one that clearly identified the miserable living and working conditions facing the vast majority of peoples. Its recommendations were, not surprisingly perhaps, aimed at appeasing popular discontent while securing a transition to self-rule in the Caribbean that would protect and entrench the interests of established and newly emerging economic and political elites. And many of those recommendations would be bought into by a generation of leaders who as yesterday’s Kaieteur News editorial noted, came to power on the backs of these struggles, only to turn around and  participate in these policies of containment.

This is what makes Andaiye’s remarks at the UG symposium on labour so far-reaching, for what we have here is a challenge to think about how colonial definitions of labour have come to settle firmly in the contemporary trade union movement in the Caribbean. The Moyne Commission’s notion of responsible trade unionism was aimed at reducing worker militancy, by creating a distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. This division would be upheld, not challenged, by many spokespersons and principal organizers. Historian Melanie Newton, for example, recalls finding an interview in the archives, done in the 1970s, in which a prominent Caribbean trade unionist reflected on the labour disturbances of the late 1930s. There was little place in his recollections for the unemployed, large numbers of women among them, who he dismissively referred to as the “barefoot people,” separated from those who the labour movement recognized as having respectable and legitimate grievances. Such a comment ignores the diverse backgrounds of participants in those struggles, and the radical challenge at the time this represented to the existing order. More importantly, it refuses to recognize that without these “barefoot people” those challenges to colonial authority across the region would not have had the force that they did. It is a betrayal of those who took to the streets, who helped force a door open that in the end precious few would be allowed to pass through.

The Moyne Commission’s vision of trade unionism was also based on the idea of the male breadwinner and female housewife model. Such a model is based on the idea that the only work that matters is the work that is regular and has a price attached to it (a wage or salary), and which takes place outside of the home.  One of the consequences of accepting this definition is that today trade unions across the Caribbean have no real language or room to deal with the vast numbers of people working in the informal sector, as own-account workers, in irregular jobs, whose creativity in trying to make ends meet has found no similar imaginative response from the labour movement. In Guyana, we should also ask ourselves, how does such a definition serve to exclude hinterland regions and the kinds of work and challenges facing Amerindian communities, and what are the implications of recognizing that Guyanese trade unionism is really coastal?

Another consequence of this restricted definition of work is that it leaves no room to consider the unpaid caring work that sustains families and communities and that falls primarily to women. We call this housework but that is a misnomer because it does not just take place in the house. A survey done with thousands of Caribbean women in the 1980s found that when asked to describe work, money was not the only or even the main characteristic that was identified. Women frequently said work was something that involved time, energy, and was something that could not be avoided. Not recognizing caring work is a fundamental mistake, one that leads to the continued invisibility and devaluation of a set of practices that are the very foundation of our economy.

Fully challenging our received understandings of work and labour is an act of decolonization. As Andaiye suggested in her talk, it has the potential to create a broad-based movement that can address workers in their diverse capacities and locations. Nor is this a far-fetched or unrealistic proposition, as some readers may conclude. Take the case of Guadeloupe. Two years ago, on January 20th 2009, a political movement was launched that would take the Caribbean island and French overseas territory by storm, rippling outwards to Martinique, French Guiana and as far as Réunion in the Indian Ocean. For 44 days the country ground to a halt as a mass general strike took effect. Schools and workplaces were closed, many roads were barricaded and even cars stopped running. By the end of the strike Guadeloupean activists had secured an agreement with the French government on 165 demands that ranged from increases in the minimum wage to reduction of prices on food, housing, gasoline and other goods. In a diaspora column written at the time, anthropologist Yarimar Bonilla noted that the umbrella organization, Lyannaj Kont Pwofitasyon (Alliance Against Profiteering), represented some 48 groupings, including but not limited to trade unions. The coalition led to a broad and collectively developed political platform. People had to work together, to listen to each other (a skill Guyanese everywhere seem increasingly to be losing), to find acceptable compromises, to find a language that spoke to everyone, to come up with a set of demands that everybody could own, could feel they had a stake in. This was the basis for the strike and negotiations with the French government. This was the basis for the solidarity that Sunday’s Kaieteur News editorial called for. This successful strike – the only real success across the Caribbean in recent memory, one might add – speaks volumes to how trade unions across the region need to radically reinvent themselves, and the potential for effecting meaningful and lasting change if they do.

Unions must enlist unorganised labour

Unions must enlist unorganised labour

-to heal division, end exploitation, says Andaiye

By Mark McGowan 
Local News | Saturday, April 30, 2011

Widening the trade union base to include various groups of currently unorganised workers could be the key to bridging the racial and political divide pervasive in the local labour movement, social activist Andaiye believes.

Speaking at a forum on labour yesterday organised by the University of Guyana (UG) Students for Social Change, Andaiye said that such a move would also help to guard against the exploitation that many of these workers are regularly subjected to.  She noted too that many of the workers that fall into this category are women.

Labour attorney Randolph Kirton addressing the audience yesterday. Seated at the head table from left to right are: GAWU General Secretary Seepaul Narine, UG Lecturer Dr Christopher Carrico and Social Activist Andaiye of Red Thread. (Jules Gibson photo)

Andaiye, who was representing Red Thread at the event, said that the unions had turned their backs on this important section of the workforce. “The weakness of the labour movement tends always to be discussed, in terms of…divided on the grounds of race and divided on the grounds of party. And that’s true,” she said.  She added, however, that “there is a capital-defined definition of labour by which we are operating, which means that we are going to exclude thousands upon thousands of our women, particularly women with the lowest income.” She identified domestics, market vendors, security guards and housewives as among the categories of workers which belong to this group.

While acknowledging that the unions need to address the racial and party divisions that exist in the labour movement, Andaiye pointed out that the persons belonging to the unorganised workers come from all races and are of different political persuasions. She suggested that reaching out to these groups could help bridge the existing divide.

The idea of organising these various categories of workers, Andaiye said, was not a novel one and had been done before in the Caribbean. She told the gathering of mostly university students that Trinidad had employed such systems during the 1940s.

The social activist also said that the housework and the care giving that many women also do is work that has both social and economic value. These activities, she said, result in the production and reproduction of the labour force.

Andaiye said that the existing economic structure in the country allows for the creation of jobs that are “super exploitative.”  She cited examples where security guards often find themselves working two successive 12-hour shifts and cases where mothers are working in locations far away from their children.  This, she said, had a lot of social spin offs.  “If you oblige people who are parents, if you oblige, above all, mothers to work in that way, you must know that those people are not paying a great deal of attention to their children. What they are doing is neglecting their children, in order to make a living. And then the whole society bears the result of that,” she said.

“Only piece of the issue is ever being discussed. If you have a majority of the labour force that is, in fact, unorganised, large numbers of them in an informal sector and so on then all of those issues that are informal sector issues, those are not even coming up anywhere on the agenda, although they are crucial issues,” Andaiye told this newspaper when she was approached after the forum.

Expounding on why the unions should push this issue, Andaiye said “not only would you be increasing in numbers but you are bringing fundamental issues about the economy and the society into the struggle you’re supposed to be waging for betterment for all workers.”

“It will at least allow them [the workers], in an organized way, to put their issues centrally on the table,” she said. According to her, the system that currently exists allows for much absurdity.  Citing an example using market vendors, Andaiye said “(Minister of Works) Robeson Benn can break down the stands, then the President can come and give them back the stands and they say `yes Mister President, thank you very much’ and so on.”

According to her, when people examine this situation, it is not even about race.  “Now if people look properly at the vendors they will see that it is not even about race,” she said. “I insist that many of these sectors cross races because they are always moving vendors at Parika…all over the place, that’s how they treat vendors,” she said.    Vendors, she said, “are now not only a key part of this economy, a key part of the distribution of not only foodstuff but other goods and so on, but they are fundamental to the maintenance of thousands of households and yet all we would talk about is whether the vendors should move or don’t move in front of this shop, or that shop. Our way of dealing with those things is extremely trivial, and subjective and personal, when these are fundamental issues about how we want to organise as a people, as a society, as an economy.  And capital doesn’t have any direct interest in vendors as a category of workers, but surely labour should,” she said.

The other panelists at yesterday’s event were GAWU General Secretary Seepaul Narine and Labour attorney Randolph Kirton, with UG Anthropology lecturer Dr Christopher Carrico serving as moderator.  TUC President Norris Witter and Jinnah Rahman of the Rice Farmers Association were scheduled to be part of the panel but they did not show up.

The theme of yesterday’s session was “Poverty, Development and Labour in Guyana.”  And Narine, when responding to a question from the floor on the theme, said that while there have been some improvements in the lives of workers in Guyana, there were questions about how far-reaching they were. He noted that there were many projects that have been implemented but questioned whether they were filtering down to the ordinary people. “Benefits such as tax relief, concessions are not filtered down to the ordinary people,” he opined.  Kirton, meanwhile, expressed concern about the number of contracted employees in the public service system.  This, he contended, was a way of keeping wages low but opening up to way for some persons to receive super salaries.

UG students urged to be more militant for change

Published on 2011-04-29 19:48:46 in News

University of Guyana (UG) students were on Friday urged to become proactive and look to themselves for the solutions and leadership they would like to see in Guyana instead of waiting for someone else’s opinion of what should be done.

The call was made by speakers at a symposium dubbed the Guyana Labour Forum which was organised by the UG Students for Social Change (UGSSC) and was in response to a student’s question on their role in solidarity for development.

The event’s theme was Poverty, Development and Labour in Guyana with the panelists being Red Thread’s Andaiye, GAWU’s General Secretary Seepaul Narine and labour attorney Randolph Kirton.

“I used to read about the University of Guyana Student association … about how active they were and what they used to do about changes for this university; you don’t do those things now, simply because many of you feel that it has become a situation of hopelessness. You can’t give up hope, you have to continue and if it means being rebellious you have to do that,” Narine declared.

He told the mostly young students that they will one day become workers and parents and if they witness wrongdoings without doing anything about it then they too are culpable. According to Narine, they need to examine how much importance they will attach to their working lives and proceed from there.

“You got to ensure that as students, as lecturers, as teachers at this university, you also have a role to play in ensuring the administration does what it is required of them,” he said.

“Somebody believe I shouldn’t talk because if I talk I will annoy somebody, but once you say the right thing it doesn’t matter who you annoy, history will record you a saying the right thing.”

Meanwhile, Andaiye lamented that students seemed to believe that it was up to someone else to provide them with impetus to effect change. She urged them to band together with other groups in the society who may have similar issues.

“Don’t think of yourselves only as students and so the market vendors who are being set aside and these other categories who are being set aside are somehow lesser than you,” she said. Andaiye told them to analyse who comprise those groups and to start small since they are feeling “relatively powerless” at this time.

Anthropology Professor Christopher Carrico, who moderated the programme, told the students that the generations from the late 1960s, 70s and up until the 80s, were changing things while still in their 20s and he cited the example of Walter Rodney.

“If you’re looking for leadership you have to look around the room at each other,” he stated.
The UGSSC is an on-campus society which states one of its purpose as being “to agitate on and of campus for changes that are conducive to the accomplishment of the age-old ideals of freedom, justice and equality.”

It also lists social research and the development of practical and implementable solutions for social problems among its intended objectives.