The Enmore Martyrs

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Today is Enmore Martyrs’ Day. 73 years ago five sugar workers were killed by colonial police on this day during protests action on the Demerara estates against the cut and load system, and other socioeconomic grievances associated with plantation work and life. The five are, Rambarran, Pooran, Lallabagee, Surajballi and Harry. In 1977 the Forbes Burnham Government began honouring the deaths of the five, by making the day a national calendar event, as a result of the lobbying of the Guyana Trades Union Congress.

The Enmore Martyrs’ shooting may mean different things to different people. What cannot be denied is the shooting was the result of workers seeking to bring attention to their problems. Instead of the employer, i.e., the sugar barons, sitting with the workers to listen to their grievances, they forced a situation of protests and subsequent shooting of sugar workers by the colonial police. A Commission of Inquiry (COI) into the shooting and events surrounding it, stated the sugar workers were armed with cutlasses, etc. and were threatening to the police.

Albeit the COI addressing the issue of the workers being armed, the protest is a painful reminder of the extent to which the state will use the police to maim, kill and destroy. The 1948 shooting is also reminiscent of the 1999 shooting of striking public servants at John Fernandes Wharf. Those public servants were unarmed and protesting the employer, i.e. the government, refusing to negotiate wage and salary increases with their unions.

Unlike the Enmore Martyrs shooting that resulted in a COI, repeated calls for a COI into the John Fernandes shooting has seen no success thus far. This is unhealthy for Guyana, given that where an independent government is reluctant to have an inquiry, a colonial authority was receptive. Inquiries are a norm to investigating incidents where accountability matters, particularly when the state is involved or alleged to be involved.

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73 years after the Enmore Martyrs the rights of workers to join a trade union of choice and engage in collective bargaining remain threatened from all appearances. The public is well aware that some trade unions could have their grievances addressed with the employer, whilst some are ignored. It cannot be ignored that the rumblings in the industrial environment are primarily from workers employed by the state and where the state has shareholding interest.

There remains non-engagement by the employer, i.e. the government, with the Teachers Union, the Public Service Union, and the Bauxite and General Workers Union. These are not healthy indicators for a stable environment, for the image of the government as the largest employer, and the welfare of the affected. The government is the largest employer and expected to set the national tone of valuing the benefit of a stable industrial climate.
Workers are integral to every facet of production, productivity and development in society. To continue to ignore workers as the most vital resource to nation building or treat workers as undeserving as happened in 1948 suggests, that although the years have accumulated, the world has changed, and there is global clamour to treat workers and other vulnerable groups with respect,  there remains much industrial discontent 73 years after.



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