Messgae to the Nation from Dr the Honourable Keith Rowley on the occasion of Labour Day 2020
This is the day when we all celebrate the historic achievements of the Labour movement across the country.
As Prime Minister, I salute those achievements and the efforts of all those labour leaders, who struggled on behalf of workers, so today Trinidad and Tobago enjoys a unique quality of life, which compares favourably, with many countries in the developed world.
My greetings to the Labour movement on Labour Day 2020 are extended on behalf of the Government of Trinidad and Tobago and my own family.
As a result of the Novel Corona Virus, the celebrations this year are expected to be more restrained.
Nonetheless, the victories of June 19, 1937, achieved on behalf of workers are saluted as a historic point in the march of labour, which began almost 100 years earlier, in the Emancipation of slave labour in 1838.
Historical surveys from then, up to1937, indicate that workers over that near one-hundred-year period were, at best, “half-free and half-coerced”, hence their history of fierce opposition and resistance to colonial racism and persecution.
They reveal that up to the pre-1937 period the average oil worker was described as living in a social milieu of squalor, hooliganism and prostitution receiving only 91.5 cents a day, while farm workers on cocoa estates, just like sugar workers, who existed in dilapidated dwellings, without basic sanitary facilities, received a mere 40 cents.
In that period leaders such as Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler, Adrian Cola Rienzi, Elma Francois, the ten women who were arrested for their participation in the June 19 riots -- just to cite a few -- responded vigorously to those issues.
Butler, a Grenadian by birth, is remembered as an injured oilfield worker, turned preacher, who passionately articulated the abuses of workers generally, such as their deplorable working conditions, poor remuneration, racial discrimination, and the economic depression of the 1930s.
It is only “right and fitting” that today this country should honour Butler, as the late UWI Principal, Professor Lloyd Braithwaite wrote, in a tribute: “…for without his (Butler’s) persistence and fortitude there would have been no June 1937, and the modern trade union and labour movement would not have been born at that time”.
Having progressed to Independence, we should acknowledge that, although there were differences and tensions, our post-colonial Governments, in the main, have recognised labour’s role in national development. e.g. the Industrial Stabilisation Act, 1965, introduced the concept of compulsory arbitration and the establishment of the Industrial Court.
Since then the Court has been recognised as the legitimate arbiter in industrial disputes between employers and workers.
Today, we can proudly describe labour-employer relations in Trinidad and Tobago as respectful and stable. We can attribute this to efforts of the labour movement, private sector and the Government, each one seeking the best outcomes for this country.
For instance, the Government, as the largest employer, has maintained and supported its employees, using available technology, which allows thousands to work virtually, during the current pandemic.
Significantly, the Government has ensured the jobs and salaries of all public servants, during this stay-at-home.
Undoubtedly, it recognises the importance of the nation’s workers as a most important asset in keeping our country economically, socially and politically stable.
The face of labour as we have known it is changing, and the sudden, devastating appearance of COVID-19 has certainly brought this realisation to the centre stage.
It should be noted that, as a Government, we were forced to make unprecedented decisions to protect everyone in this country.
This country owes a debt of gratitude to our frontline workers, who took up their charge, ensuring that the rest of Trinidad and Tobago remained safe and productive.
Our health care workers, those in the protective services, sanitation and garbage collectors, the public utilities, the supermarkets – essential workers - reminded us that every job is important and even some that society may ignore are the ones most needed to uphold us as a nation.
These workers are exemplars of our national watch words, Discipline, Production and Tolerance. As they worked together, they made us proud to be citizens of this country which so far has successfully fought off destruction by a rampaging virus which is still wreaking havoc across the world.
So, today as we celebrate another Labour Day let us never forget the past struggles and the names of those who brought us to this place of stability.
Nonetheless, let us prepare ourselves very early for the many coming challenges and transformations in the “new” world, after the Covid-19 pandemic.
But let us look towards that future, with boundless faith in our destiny, collectively, in a mutually beneficial relationship, which ultimately will create a stronger Trinidad and Tobago.
Towards this end, I wish all our citizens a safe and enjoyable Labour Day!