HC Deb 29 January 1947 vol 432 cc213-7W
112. Sir Peter Macdonald

asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies if he will make a statement regarding the recent strikes and sabotage in Trinidad.

117. Mr. Sorensen

asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies if he will make a statement respecting recent disturbances in Trinidad; what are the underlying causes; and what action is being taken to deal with them.

Mr. Creech Janes

There have been three recent strikes in Trinidad. On 8th November last, the Seamen and Waterfront Workers' Union declared a strike after their claim for a 50 per cent. increase in wages and a reduction in hours of work had been rejected by the Shipping Association. In this connection I would refer to my reply to the hon. Member for Central Hackney (Mr. H. Hynd) on 27th November.

Employees of the Government Wharves Administration were also involved in this strike and on 2nd December, after the strike had lasted for 25 days, a meeting was held between representatives of the Government, the Shipping Association and the Union. At that meeting a formula was adopted under which the Wharves Administration undertook to offer available employment to waterfront workers seeking it, and to enter into negotiations as soon as conditions became sufficiently normal for the purpose of drawing up a mutually acceptable agreement. The Shipping Association agreed to cooperate with the Government to apply to its employees the terms of any agreement reached between the Wharves Administration and the Union. The Union thereupon agreed to call off the strike, and work was resumed on 5th December. A meeting to discuss the preparation of a new agreement was held on 12th December between the Wharves Administration and the Union.

On 8th January the Public Works and Public Services Workers' Trade Union called a strike of its members. There have been long standing claims both by this Union and the Federated Workers' Trade Union, in respect of the wages for unskilled labourers. Increases of pay to skilled and unskilled Government workers were announced in December, to take effect from 15th February, 1946. Only a small number of men have come out on strike, and there has been no dislocation of work. I am informed by the Governor that the union has received no support from the local T.U.C., to which it is affiliated, and that responsible trade union leaders view the strike with disfavour. A number of other unions are concerned in the conditions of employment of public employees, and none of these has taken any part in this strike.

Discussions have taken place between the Government and the Federated Workers' Trade Union, which, it is understood, has the largest membership of the workers concerned. As a result of these discussions a committee has been appointed to undertake a revision of current schedules of grades and basic wage scales for Government employees. The Public Works and Public Services Workers' Trade Union has rejected all invitations to participate in these discussions. The union's legal adviser, in an interview with the Colonial Secretary, stated that the purpose of the strike was to demonstrate the strength of the union.

On 11th November, Uriah Butler', as president-general of the British Empire Workers' Peasant and Ratepayers' Association, submitted demands to the employers in the oil industry for an increase of wage rates to be granted within 48 hours as well as the handing over to the union of one penny on every barrel of oil produced in Trinidad. These demands were rejected by the employers. According to local Press reports of 13th December, Butler and three other members of the executive committee of the union were suspended from membership. On 19th December, however, Butler, on behalf of a union called the Mineral Development Union, called a strike of his followers in the oilfields. This strike was not supported by the Oilfield Workers' Trade Union, which is the union recognised by the Oilfields Employers' Associations and which has an agreement—operative until December, 1947—with the employers on all questions affecting wages and working conditions in the oil industry. The union issued instructions to its members not to take part in the strike. Only 1,470 workers out of 11,340 came out on strike, and three weeks ago the men started to return to work.

At the end of December in the Fyzabad and Point Fortin area there were violence and mass intimidation. Early in January, when the strikers began to return to work, saboteurs and malcontents ignited a number of oil wells and emptied water reservoirs. In order to deal with this serious situation an Emergency Powers Ordinance was enacted, under which the Governor issued a Proclamation ordering Butler to leave the area, and imposing a nine-hour curfew. Butler established his headquarters in Port-of-Spain on 19th January and was joined by approximately 1,200 of his followers from the oilfield. Next day he asked for an interview with the Governor to discuss the union's wage demands, but this was refused because of the existing agreement with the Oilfield Workers' Trade Union. The following day 500 barrels of oil were burnt and a number of oil tanks destroyed, in a fire which broke out in the quarryfields of the Trinidad Petroleum Development Company.

A large number of Butler's followers on 20th January picketed the main traffic routes and the bus termini and railway stations, and intimidated persons proceeding to work. The police were obliged to arrest 72 persons under the terms of the Trade Disputes and Protection of Property Ordinance, 1943, relating to the prevention of intimidation, annoyance by violence, besetting. etc. Later, an unlawful procession went to the Government buildings, with the apparent object of occupying the Legislative Council's Chambers and to force the Governor's hand. Some 3,000 to 4,000 people assembled and, the police having cleared the buildings, were attacked with sticks, stones and bottles. The Commissioner of Police, who had been injured, read the Riot Act and ordered the police to attack with tear gas and batons. Thirty-two persons were arrested. The crowd was subsequently broken up, but not before five police officers and 20 other ranks had received minor injuries. Two commissioned police officers were thrown to the ground and, to save them from further injury, a senior police officer fired his revolver and wounded a man. The Governor then issued a further Proclamation under the Emergency Powers Ordinance, extending its provisions to the whole of the colony, and made regulations to prohibit loitering, etc.

A party of police under the Commissioner then visited Butler's headquarters. On arrival they were attacked with stones and other missiles. A shot was fired from the premises which severely wounded the Commissioner. Dangerous missiles continued to be thrown and the police were compelled to fire. Two of Butler's followers were wounded, one seriously. Two officers and 11 other ranks of the police force were injured. The police were then able to enter the premises and 357 persons were arrested, of whom about one-third were women. They were held on charges of rioting, unlawful assembly, breach of the regulations issued under the Emergency Powers Ordinance and assault. Steps are being taken for their early trial. My latest information is that conditions in Port of Spain are almost normal and that no further sabotage in the oilfields, where two companies of soldiers are now stationed, has been reported.

It would appear that these recent industrial disturbances in Trinidad are partly a reflection of general labour unrest in other areas, accentuated by a measure of unemployment resulting mainly from the reduction of wartime naval and military establishments. These underlying causes are complicated in Trinidad by the existence of competing and overlapping labour organisations in the several industries, which has led to conflicting claims and rivalries between some of the leaders of the labour movement. The solution of these difficulties must be looked for in the development of the economic potentialities of the Colony and in the improvement generally of its labour organisation.

119. Mr. H. Hynd

asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies for what reasons the Government of Trinidad made an appeal, during the recent seamen's strike, for volunteers to work under police protection; and whether there was any response to this appeal.

Mr. Creech Jones

The appeal by the Government for volunteer wharfmen and stevedores was made to ensure the offloading of food cargoes in order to safeguard the food supplies of the Colony. The response was in excess of requirements and 712 volunteers, including 213 regular workers, were employed.