Sugar workers: A sustaining life force

By Nicole Burrowes

Nicole Burrowes is an Assistant Professor in the African and African Diaspora Studies Department at the University of Texas, Austin. Her current book project, Seeds of Solidarity, explores labour rebellions in 1930s British Guiana. Beyond academia, she has extensive experience in community organizing and documentary film. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Guyanese parents.

Earning a living in the sugar industry, has never quite been the sweet life, but the work has been a sustaining life force for generations of Guyanese families.

Now the sugar industry is dying.

And as this industry withers, so do prospects for former sugar workers counting on Guyana Sugar Corporation’s promises of severance packages and retraining. At the end of 2017, over 4,700 workers were laid off. There has been talk (and some movement) in relation to re-opening two of the closed estates with the intent of privatization. Meanwhile peoples’ lives hang in the balance.

As one of the ultimate emblems of the colonial project, the political and historical implications for sugar workers is all too much to bear. Consider that this industry is credited with the growth and development of the Americas and Europe. It was built on stolen lands, on the backs of enslaved and indentured people. Cane harvesters from then till now have labored under severe conditions and kept the industry alive—facing back-breaking work, muddy and disease-infested waters, long hours and low pay.

Building on related histories that have been recovered by scholars and historians of the Guyanese experience, I study the 1930s with a deep desire to understand Guyana’s history, the practices of solidarity, and the living legacies of dispossession, enslavement, and indenture that plague the Americas.

As Guyana faces the last throes of a venerable industry, it is important to remember that sugar workers have long challenged the status quo just as they have depended on it to live. Our history demonstrates this, particularly during the 1930s when the colony of British Guiana felt the pangs of the Great Depression quite acutely. The country suffered from dramatic levels of unemployment, and falling sugar prices on the world market affected the colony’s most important industry. Those colonial subjects who had jobs often faced detestable working environments, low salaries, and racial discrimination. Finally, a flood in 1934 further exacerbated the precarious circumstances of people’s livelihoods.

On the East Coast of Demerara, homes, farms, and livestock were annihilated. Coming in the midst of the economic crisis, the flood condemned villagers who had previously experienced relative independence in their labor, working their own provision grounds and selling their labor as necessary, to complete dependence on the sugar industry—the largest employer in the colony—for survival.

In Essequibo, the sugar industry literally went under water.

A year later, the government was still trying to relocate 1500 families from Essequibo. The devastation to the land and the economy led Governor Geoffrey Northcote to plead with sugar industry executives to find jobs in other regions for people who had lost everything.

Yet, neighbors banded together to support one another in a remarkable demonstration of solidarity. Church organizations, Hindu temples, and relief committees launched into action.  Individuals such as Pandit Mansaroop Maraj raised funds and distributed much-needed goods to suffering families.

The following year, 1935, would bring convulsions for laborers feeling the sting of their dependence on Big Sugar.  Led by youth, labor uprisings began in August, and plantation workers from the West Coast to the East Coast, to the East Bank of Demerara and on to the Berbice region—stood up for better wages, an end to corrupt practices, better working conditions, shorter hours, and a host of other demands. They protested, struck, sabotaged, advocated, danced, and drummed to make change.

Now, laborers were not in total agreement about these various tactics. Some felt they needed to negotiate more, some were afraid of reprisal, some felt acts of sabotage were extreme, and yet others felt that striking was too risky. And upper-class allies, while offering nominal support, critiqued affected workers, arguing they were ignorant, clueless about the impact of their actions, and were damaging the sugar industry — the lifeblood of the colony.

But what else could workers do? There weren’t a lot of options for workers who felt they had been mistreated and exploited by the sugar industry. Governance of the colony was dominated by sugar industry men, the governor was new and depended on these wealthy benefactors, and at the time, these private plantations did not recognize unions. Further, police were called in more often than not, to deal with the disputes on these private sugar estates. The reality was, however, the people of Guyana had rebellion in their blood.

During this time, people expressed solidarity not only in the response to the floods but to working conditions in the fields. African- and Indian-Guyanese workers found common cause. Older workers joined younger workers. Men advocated for pregnant women whom they felt were being forced to work late into their pregnancies. Families and friends of sugar employees flowed into the streets to support them. Although men were paid more for similar jobs, they supported their female counterparts’ demands. Of course, women actively mobilized on behalf of themselves, their families, and friends.

Notably, an elderly female worker named Rebecca Peters advocated strongly on behalf of weeders, and the child and female workforce who cleaned the trenches. A pair of young brothers, named in the records only as Arjoon and Basdeo, were literate, and used their skills to mobilize other workers to strike. And finally, another worker, Joseph Pembleton, lost his job and his home for participating in the strikes. He later testified, “Many people … are afraid to come and speak. I am prepared to come and speak the truth.”

By virtue of Guyana’s history, we must recognize those workers – men and women, across race and generation and village – who have kept the sugar industry alive, particularly now as workers have been sent home. They are the deepest legacy of an industry that was exploitative from its inception. Those of us at home and in the Guyanese diaspora should not only remember and recognize their contributions but should also support their efforts for self-determination and to gain justice for themselves and their communities.

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