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SMALL ISLAND, GLOBAL IMPACT: how Trinbago workers shaped worker rights around the world by Dr. Zophia Edwards

posted 26 Jun 2019, 13:32 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 26 Jun 2019, 13:45 ]
Dr. Zophia Edwards is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Providence College, RI, USA.
Every Labor Day, we celebrate the remarkable impact of the working class on the nation of Trinidad and Tobago. We remember the famous names such as Butler, Rienzi as well as those we did not record in the history books – the drillers, pipe fitters, domestic workers, sugar estate laborers, and more – who sacrificed their lives and their livelihoods in the labor protests and riots of 1937 to make the country a better place for all Trinbago people.

These people and the trade unions they forged struggled for higher wages, better health and sanitation services, greater political rights, to reduce and eliminate racial discrimination and worker abuse in the workplace, and to lower overall inequality. It is largely because of the efforts of these working class movements that Trinbagonians enjoy such a high standard of living today.

While we typically honor how working class people and trade unions in Trinidad and Tobago have shaped the nation, less well known is how these same Trinbagonian working class people in the 1930s also helped improve people’s lives around the world. The working class movement of the 1930s led to the establishment of a Trades Disputes (Arbitration and Inquiry) Ordinance in 1938, which, for the first time, instituted a system of arbitration to settle labor disputes, and was the very first iteration of what would later become the Industrial Court.

The legislation, while containing some elements of British law, was unique, and described by colonial officials as “the first of its kind.” They referred to it as the “Trinidad model” and it was rapidly adopted by other colonies across the British Empire; by 1941, 23 colonies had passed this legislation. How did this ordinance emerge and spread across the world?

Prior to 1938, workers in the British colonies had little to no institutions to which they could take work-related grievances. Without legal recourse to strike or engage in collective bargaining, workers often resorted to writing letters to their employers and colonial government officials. They demanded that workers and employers meet to discuss their grievances and demands with mediation by the then colonial government. Unsurprisingly, the oppressive colonial government ignored the workers’ pleas.

It was only when workers all across the colony protested and rioted, which peaked in 1937, that they got the attention of the colonizers. The Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the causes of the labor unrest (often called the Forster Report) concurred with what workers had been asking for all along, and recommended the establishment of an institution for collective bargaining and dispute resolution.

The colonial government was forced to comply out of fear that workers would continue to protest. Therefore, British colonial government officials engaged in negotiations with labor unions, represented by Rienzi, and private employers to produce the legislation. In 1938, the Trades Disputes Ordinance was enacted in the colony of Trinidad and Tobago.

On August 20th, 1938, a circular dispatch was sent from London “to all colonies (except Trinidad), Protectorates, Palestine and Tanganyika Territory” instructing colonial governments across the British Empire to consider adopting the ordinance. Labor protests were also occurring in other British colonies and the Trinidad model became seen as the solution to the Empire-wide worker movements and political uprisings.

One colonial official said he was, “very anxious to see adequate machinery set up as soon as possible in all Colonial Dependencies where labor disputes are likely to arise, which can be put into operation with the object of settling any dispute in its earliest stages and before it has time to assume serious proportions.” Another said, “… it would be desirable for machinery on the lines adopted in Trinidad to be available to be used should this be found necessary.”

Many territories willingly accepted the “Trinidad model” for labor dispute arbitration. For instance, one colonial administrator in Sierra Leone wrote, “This Bill follows almost verbatim the Trinidad Trade Disputes (Arbitration and Inquiry) Ordinance, 1938, which was sent to Colonial dependencies.” Another in the Leeward Islands said, “The [Leeward Islands] Bill follows almost word for word the Trinidad Ordinance No. 7 of 1938, which was supplied to Colonial Governments as a model with the circular dispatch of the 20th August last [1938].”

In other cases, the Trinidad and Tobago model was adopted with some small but not substantive alterations to fit local settings. For instance, in Barbados, a colonial officer said, “The Act is drafted along the lines of the Trade Disputes (Arbitration and Inquiry) Ordinance, 1938, of Trinidad…”⁠ However, “The concluding section (section 15) is modified to meet local conditions.” While some colonies resisted adopting the legislation, Trinbagonian workers, nevertheless, were at the center of the creation of this legislation and tribunal, which improved worker rights not just at the national level, but across the world!

Therefore, as we celebrate Labor Day, let us remember how working class people of Trinidad and Tobago shaped not only the nation, but also the world, as they helped create better working conditions for people around the globe. Therefore, there is much for Trinbagonian workers to commemorate, celebrate, and preserve both nationally and internationally.

Recently, the Industrial Court appears to be under threat. The Joint Trade Union Movement of Trinidad and Tobago has called out the government and the elite class for covertly attempting to undermine worker rights in the current Industrial Court. The government and elites should draw a lesson from the history of working class mobilization in Trinidad and Tobago. The workers will not give up their legacy that easily. When they come together, they change not only Trinidad and Tobago; they also change the world. Be warned.

(The data presented here comes from research undertaken at The National Archives, United Kingdom. The full paper based on this research is currently under peer-review at an academic journal.)