Labour lost

first_imgToday is “Labour Day” – a special public holiday set aside for the workers of Guyana to reflect on their condition and to bring their concerns to the rest of the populace. The day may seem anomalous to some, since, in theory, one or more persons in every family have to be working to support themselves and their families, so the concerns of “labour” ought to be apparent to all. But the “day” becomes understandable when the development of “labour” is viewed from a historical perspective. We can begin from the cavemen when each person grubbed for food and provided their own labour for their sustenance. Things changed when we moved on to a settled mode of living with the introduction of “agriculture” to provide for our daily bread. Henceforth, some individuals would co-opt, via various strategems, others to work for them. “Labour” became reified as something outside the living, breathing persons providing it. From the West we can proceed, almost teleologically, from slaves to serfs, to servants, to “workers” who sold their “labour” that now became a “commodity”.  For us in the Caribbean, the use of “labour” on the plantations ignored the previous teleology and insisted on recapitulating the process all over again: slavery, indentured labour and finally “free labour”. As to how “free” the individuals were (and are) has now become the question of the age. Marx highlighted the paradox: “with the free labourer, free in the double sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand, he has no other commodity for sale.” This dilemma of “free labour” is presented quite starkly in Guyana today with sugar workers, but, by some strange alchemy, their plight has not received the notice of, say, that of the workers who were asked to pay exorbitantly for parking for their vehicles in Georgetown. Even though sugar was the reason why Guyana was colonised and became a state through the revenues it generated for the investors from the colonial power, it is still not a point to be remarked that not a single sugar worker since the seventeenth century has ever become wealthy out of the wages paid for his or her labour. By definition, to be a sugar worker was to be poor and live at a subsistence level. If one were to ask why this was so, the “educated” among us – especially the economists who are supposed to have specialised in this area –- would more or less retort, “Duh! The ‘economics’ of sugar forbid higher wages to be paid to workers.” It was accepted – and still accepted – that managers and consultants and commissions of inquiries had to be paid super salaries – but not the workers. If we were to seek further explanations, we would be told that it was a matter of “supply and demand” of the labour commodity provided by sugar workers, even though managers of the sugar industry regularly complain they cannot obtain enough labour. Uitvlugt, on the West Coast of Demerara, for instance, is one of the three sugar estates the Government says will survive the axe that is presently being wielded, but at the same time complain Uitvlugt does not have enough “labour”. And it refuses to raise wages to attract that needed commodity that the economic theories insist is the solution to the problem. Today, the trade unions that represent the interests of “labour” are supposed to be marching in the streets to show their solidarity in highlighting the concerns of their constituency. From any rational standpoint, it would appear obvious they should all focus on the travails of that segment of labour where the contradictions of labour are most stark: sugar. But this would never occur, as it has not over the past century since the first trade union was launched. There is “labour” and there is “labour”, but sugar “labour” is beyond the pale.last_img read more