HC Deb 07 July 1948 vol 453 cc362-5
32 and 33. Mr. H. Hynd

asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies (1) whether the terms of reference of the Commission appointed to inquire into conditions in the sugar industry in Trinidad and the Leeward Islands may be extended to include the sugar industry in British Guiana;

(2) how many sugar estates in British Guiana are still affected by the strike; how many workers are on strike; how many at work on these estates; what are the demands of the strikers; and what are the difficulties in the way of meeting them.

42. Mr. Gallacher

asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies if he will make arrangements for the Commission appointed to inquire into the conditions in the sugar industry in Trinidad and the Leeward Islands to extend its inquiries to the sugar industry in British Guiana.

27 Mr. Pritt

asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies (1) whether he has any statement to make about the incident at the Elmore Plantation, British Guiana, on 16th June, when armed police fired on sugar workers who were on strike, killing five and injuring 12;

(2) whether he will advise the Labour Department in British Guiana to bring about negotiations between the Sugar Producers' Association and the Guiana Industrial Workers Union for the settlement of the strike on seven sugar estates which has now lasted nine weeks, instead of confining the negotiations to unions recognised by the Producers' Association but not commanding the confidence of the workers;

(3) whether he is aware that, on 7th May, a motion was tabled in the Legislative Council of British Guiana drawing attention to the critical situation in the sugar industry and requesting the appointment of a committee to investigate the dispute in the industry and the working and living conditions on the sugar estates; that no action has been taken on that motion; and that the situation has been allowed to drift into a long strike; and whether he will secure that the Government of the Colony take steps to secure an end of the strikes by redressing the workers' grievances.

Mr. Rees-Williams

As the answer is long and detailed, I will, with permission, circulate it in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

Mr. Gallacher

While I shall carefully scan the statement, will the Under-Secretary guarantee that something will be done immediately in order to ease the conditions of these workers instead of allowing the police to fire upon them and kill them as has been the case arising out of the recent strike? Will he see that everything possible is done to get proper conditions for these workers, because they could not be worse treated and more oppressed?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a question.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

Surely, in the case of a serious incident of this kind the Government ought to make a statement to the House which can be discussed? Surely the Under-Secretary ought to answer the Question now?

Mr. Rees-Williams

I am perfectly prepared to do so if the House so wishes, but I warn the House that it is a long statement. I could give it at the end of Questions.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

Would it not be for the convenience of the House if the statement were made after Questions?

Following is the statement:

I would refer to the reply which my right hon. Friend gave on 23rd June to my hon. Friend the Member for Central Hackney (Mr. H. Hynd). I regret that there are still seven East Coast sugar estates affected by the strike of cane cutters. These estates comprise 20 per cent. of the sugar-producing area of the Colony and employ a maximum of 7,500 workers, of whom 1,240 are can cutters. There has been spasmodic working throughout the period of the strike and approximately 100 (but no cane cutters) were at work a few days ago. All the other estates in the Colony continue to work normally.

The strikers demand the abolition of the present system of cutting, loading and weighing cane, and its replacement by the system in force two or three years ago. The old system was changed because it was unsatisfactory both to workers and employers. The new system is reported to be working satisfactorily on other estates at the same rates of pay and under the same conditions. Some strikers have, in fact, accepted on other estates work which they refused under similar conditions on the East Coast. The new system is supported by the recognised unions and the producers are unwilling to go back to the old out-moded system. There is still complete deadlock on this point.

The Labour Department of British Guiana obtained a written statement of the strikers' grievances from the Guiana Industrial Workers Union—the newly formed union which claims to represent the strikers—and placed it before the Sugar Producers Association at the beginning of May. The sugar producers, supported by the recognised trade unions, refused to negotiate with the new union on the grounds that it would undermine the recognised unions, now of some 10 years' standing, and with whom machinery for dealing with all disputes of sugar workers had been established. In view of this it would be difficult for the Labour Department of British Guiana to attempt further negotiations between the Sugar Producers Association and the Guiana Industrial Workers Union. In any case the Government of British Guiana cannot support an organisation which seeks to displace established and recognised trade unions who have the confidence of the large majority of the workers.

It is the case that on 7th May notice of a motion was given by Mr. Chetti Jagan in the British Guiana Legislative Council, and that the motion has not yet been debated. The motion refers to the present strike, but it goes much beyond that and asks for the appointment of a committee of inquiry into the sugar industry generally. Among other things, the motion proposes that the committee should be asked to consider the desirability of abolishing the present plantation system of cane cultivation and replacing it by a system of co-operative can farming to be accomplished by the acquisition and distribution by Government of estate land to the workers.

The Commission appointed to inquire into the conditions in the sugar industry in Trinidad and Leeward Islands will be fully occupied with their present terms of reference, and will be unable to extend their investigations to British Guiana. When I have received the report of the local Commission now inquiring into the recent disturbances, however, I will consider, in consultation with the Governor, whether it would be advisable to appoint an independent Commission to investigate conditions in the British Guiana sugar industry.