Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Legacy of Bahamian Labour

As Tropical Storm Barry heads towards the gulf coast of Florida, we are enjoying a cool, drizzly, and wet holiday weekend here in Nassau. Yesterday, June 1st, was significant for two reasons: it was (1) the observance of Bahamian Labour Day and (2) the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Burma Road Riots.

Since most countries in the world celebrate Labour Day on May 1st (with the major exception being U.S. Labor Day, which is observed on the first Monday in September), I should mention that Bahamian Labour Day has its origins in the Burma Road Riots, which took place on June 1, 1942. So let me begin by giving a brief overview of that important event.

Following the great economic hardships of the 1930s, the onset of World War II brought new economic opportunities to Bahamians living in Nassau, particularly through the joint collaboration of the U.S. and British militaries to build shared training facilities near Nassau.

The Nassau Guardian reports:

New Providence was chosen to be the site of an Operational Training Unit under the joint auspices of the Imperial and United States Government. The installation which had to be built was supervised by the United States Army Engineering Department. An American firm, Pleasantville Incorporated, began work on the 20 May, 1942. Two sites were chosen; the Main Field just south of Grant's Town, the predominantly black section of Nassau, at the site of the small landing field (later called Oakes Field) that had been developed by Sir Harry Oakes. The Satellite Field was in the Pine Barren near the western end of New Providence, later called Windsor Field which became the Nassau International Airport. The operation called the 'Project' employed over two thousand men, many of them Out Islanders (Family Islanders) who had flocked to Nassau during the previous two decades in search of jobs. The Project not only provided work for Bahamians but also caused an influx of many white American workers who were brought in as foremen.
While at first glance this seemed to be an important employment opportunity for many previously unemployed Bahamians, it soon degenerated into a wage dispute. By law Bahamian workers were only to be paid four shillings per day BUT it seems that rumors had been circulating that the U.S. contractors were willing to pay the much higher wage of eight shillings per day, which was precisely the same wage that unskilled American laborers were being paid for doing the exact same work. When it became apparent that this dispute was not going to resolved in favor of the Bahamian workers, they held a strike on June 1, 1942 which quickly degenerated into violence, killing five persons and wounding many more.

The end result was that the Duke of Windsor, who was then serving as the governor of the Bahamas, negotiated a compromise with the workers resulting in a one shilling per day wage increase as well as the appointment of the Russell Commission to investigate and recommend legislative changes based on the concerns of the laborers. In actuality, only token changes were implemented based on the Commission's recommendations and most of its recommendations were simply ignored.

The really significant outcome of the Burma Road Riots was the impact it made on a young high school student named Randol Fawkes. Years later, Fawkes became active in the Bahamian labor movement, founded the Bahamas Federation of Labour (1955), and began holding labor rallies on June 1st of each year in order to draw attention to the plight of rank and file Bahamian laborers. As a member of the House of Assembly, Fawkes was eventually able to introduce and pass legislation in 1961 to establish June 1st as a paid public holiday. Fawkes political clout as a labor leader also positioned him to become one of the chief architects of Black Majority Rule in 1967 (of which the 40th anniversary is being observed this year).

So while the Burma Road Riots did not bring about immediate change to plight of unskilled Bahamian workers, it did inspire a subsequent and more successful movement that not only significantly improved the plight of Bahamian laborers but also significantly contributed to the momentum that ushered in the major political changes achieved through Black Majority Rule.

As important as these achievements have been for the cause of Bahamian national development, it is important not to overlook the new underclass of laborers in the Bahamas that routinely work under unfair conditions: Haitians, Dominicans, Jamaicans, and many others. I will not elaborate on the details of these laborers here, but simply point them out as a reminder that even as we celebrate the accomplishments of the past we must continue to struggle against the injustices of the present.



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