Don't polish the past; fix the omissions

Published: Sunday | October 20, 2013 Comments 0
Sir Alexander Bustamante (right) and Norman Manley. Although they are honoured as national heroes, columnist Orville Taylor argues that their contribution to worker rights was inadequate. - File
Sir Alexander Bustamante (right) and Norman Manley. Although they are honoured as national heroes, columnist Orville Taylor argues that their contribution to worker rights was inadequate. - File

Orville Taylor, Contributor

There is a difference between tearing down a set of heroes and simply elevating others to the level.


On Wednesday, October 16, 2013, veteran parliamentarian, Lester Michael Henry, made an admission that political tribalists and a few revisionist journalists have tried very hard to hide, often by attacking those who are simply trying to give a more honest view of the heroic historical figures: "They have all failed us. I am independent-minded. They have all failed us."

My only problem with Henry's statement is that he, as a publisher, writer, and one of the few eloquent parliamentarians who are purveyors of good grammar, should know the difference between the third and the first person plural. Yes, Mike; the 'they' should be 'we'.

Over the past years since I first wrote this column, the majority of our leaders have got failing grades. Based on the scholarship, research and the decades of practice, cleaning up the mess created by poor public policy, incompetent and visionless labour leaders and dishonest, immoral and downright stupid employer representatives, my conclusions could not be otherwise.

It is for that reason that the mouth and pen-for-hire opinion shapers and other spin doctors rub me the wrong way when they massage history and seek to make the achievements of the 'forefathers' greater than they are.

During Heritage Week celebrations, one needed to look at the qualifications of the persons who are designated heroes and determine if the criteria are met by the incumbents, and if so, others outside the pantheon have to be juxtaposed against them to see if they would have qualified given the objective requirements.

Thus, unapologetically, I declared that if Queen Nanny, Sam Sharpe and Paul Bogle are legitimately heroes, then Chief Tacky, who has at least the same set of prerequisites and perhaps more, should be enshrined and we celebrate him each year, instead of having Black X 'trodding' on the absent pride of Government, from St Mary to Kingston annually.

I am not sure why my friend, Devon Dick, is holding a hard end, but I will not engage in a swordfight with mi 'bredren' because I have provoked enough men of cloth to wrath.

As it regards George William Gordon, his place is cemented. Can you imagine a parliamentarian now saying, in 21st-century Jamaica, this about the head of our government? "When a governor becomes a dictator ... it is time for the people to dethrone him ... . I say, if the law is to be disregarded, it will lead to anarchy and bloodshed." Well, Gordon built his coffin with this challenge in the House of Assembly and, ultimately, it got him murdered by Governor Eyre.

Our first hero

Malcus Garvey, who changed his name to Marcus, tried unsuccessfully to uplift black people here in Jamaica and globally. But this flawed gentleman, who looked so hard at his 'browning' bride's fair-skinned maid of honour that he married her, and who fell off the stage in panic during his first major speaking outing in the United States, showed the world what our most famous deportee could do.

Who knows what would have happened if he were a little less stubborn and took advice from those who meant him well in the United States of America, and after his return, the founding fathers and elite elements in Jamaica did not persecute him so much? By the way, who was the real Bag a Wire? Was he a barrister?

Yet, for the two elected heads of government who hold pride of place in the heroes' registry, they must be judged along with their successors in the People's National Party (PNP), formed in 1938, and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), founded in 1943. They had guidelines and a list of goodies that the average poor worker needed, and up to the present, there has not been a worker-oriented or poor-loving government, except for Michael Manley's PNP between 1973 and 1977.

Before 1973, the workers' concerns via two JLP-drafted bills had to be forced on his administration, and after 1977, it was the International Monetary Fund telling us how to treat workers. Between 1977 and 2013, the pro-labour enactments can be counted on one hand, stopping at the middle finger.

My contentions have been very simple: People are the focus of development strategies, and any government elected by the people must show evidence of a commitment to uplift the lives of the majority of its citizens. They must pay particular attention to those who elected them, and the majority of Jamaicans are workers. It is workers who must be the beneficiaries of economic and political policy. Given that the two political parties were built on the back of the labour movement, the Jamaican worker needed to have got a better deal.

Let us move past the tired attempts to deify heroes and use the historical and contemporary evidence to evaluate if there is any evidence that they did. The great Alexander Bustamante was handed the leadership of the labour movement, and after he was elected in 1944 passed the Holiday with Pay Act, which did not have any regulations to give it effect, until Michael Manley's PNP did so in 1973.

Growth of the unions

True, Busta's union grew, in leaps and bounds, from just under 11,000 members in 1940 to just over 37,000 in 1955 when he lost the election. However, the 1952 Public Utilities Undertaking and Public Services Arbitration Law (PUUPSAL) did nothing more than give his government more control over dissent in the labour movement.

Between 1955 and 1961, Norman Manley made token amendments to the 1938 colonial National Minimum Wage Law, which only referred to records and penalties. However, an Employment Agencies Regulation Act was passed in 1957 and the Old-Age Pensions and Superannuation Act in 1958. Two years later, the Sugar Workers' Pension Scheme was established.

Nonetheless, in other sectors, pension and social security issues were left to the vagaries of the individual employers. Up to 1961, the PNP still had not put in place a minimum wage; nor had it enhanced the right to collective bargaining, gender equality, protected child labour, legislated maternity benefit, leave of absence, educational equality or any of the other major elements Garvey and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) outlined. Poverty and unemployment were as resilient as bauxite stains.

The 1960s was a period of unprecedented economic growth, industrialisation and foreign investment. This is irrefutable. However, dozens of junior secondary schools were created, which were designed to accommodate the culled dregs of the Common Entrance Examination (CEE) and stopped in a grade-nine dead end.

Worse, despite the enhanced CEE, the Government allocated 30 per cent of places in traditional high schools to prep schools, despite their being less than seven per cent of the CEE cohort.

And let me repeat, since I am concerned about what labour-supported governments do for workers, only the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) can be seen as a serious pro-worker legislation of the 1960s, and as we know, Norman Manley strangely opposed this initiative.

In the end, the 1960s saw the paradox of sustained economic growth, alongside rising inequality, stubborn poverty, high unemployment and low worker protection.

Show me how, up to 1972, the Jamaican worker got major benefits from its elected governments and I will reify 'Busta Manley'.

Last week, the Ministry of Labour launched its productivity campaign with the prime minister appealing to the nation. Let me take this opportunity to tell both Government and Opposition what I said between 2000 and 2003: The solution to low productivity and social violence is increased worker protection and what the ILO calls decent work. We need some real heroes today. Better must come, but when?

Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host. Email feedback to tayloronblackline@hotmail.com and columns@gleanerjm.com .

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