Message to the trade union fraternity on the occasion of Labour week/day 2020 by the Hon. Keith Scott minister responsible for Labour administration
Ministry of Social Protection – Sunday, April 26, 2020
Every year during the last week of April and the first week of May, the Ministry of Social Protection (Labour) would collaborate with the Labour Movement and the Trade Union Fraternity to commemorate and observe Critchlow Week and Labour Day or May Day as one may choose to say.
These days we refer to those commemorations and observances as Celebrations but the historical records have shown that when those events – particularly the “May-Day” observances- were first initiated by the then British Guyana Labour Union (BGLU) during the 1930’s they were referred to as the “May-Day Demonstrations”.
The term demonstration was aptly used because the events, inter alia, served to highlight citizens’ objection and opposition to the unfavorable working and living conditions to which they were subjected and at the same time to make demands on the then Colonial administration for improvements in their well-being.
To a very large extent citizens voiced their displeasure with the social and political superstructures which bedeviled their existence at the time.
During the formative years of those demonstrations which attracted the attention and participation of citizens throughout the entire socio-economic and political spectrum, the works and achievements of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow fell under the spotlight. As it were, “Critchlow the Man” was a cynosure a beacon and the outstanding charismatic leader in those days.
After all this indomitable fighter this comrade who towered above all others was subsequently recognized as a National Hero was the main protagonist for the economic and political liberation of the working class of Colonial Guiana. Hence the reason for him being positioned as an Obelisk in the demonstrations which evolved into celebrations, was clearly appreciated and understood.
It was and still is virtually impossible to speak about May Day, Labour Week or the achievements of the Working Class without reference to Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow.
After his demise the celebrations entailed wreath laying ceremonies, marches through the city of Georgetown and rallies necessitating congregating or bringing together of thousands of ordinary citizens.
That was the modus operandi of the Trade Union Fraternity for decades until the advent to the dreaded Novel Coronavirus which is commonly known today as COVID-19 Pandemic which is easily spread through physical contact and by affected persons sharing the same space by being under three feet apart from each other.
I need not remind the Social Partners of the devastating effects and potentials of the disease nor do I have to emphasise that a precautionary measure to restrict its spread is the maintenance of Social Distancing. But I must underscore that the principle of social distancing collides with the very essence and philosophy of harmony, camaraderie, togetherness and bonding which are key pillars of trade unionism and workers’ celebration of any sort.
It is quite understandable that for the first time in decades Unions are unable to meet in the usual fashion on the foreground of our Parliament Building where a statue of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow stands to remind us of the unsurpassed contribution which he made to Human Development.
The fact that much attention is being placed on the extent to which COVID-19 has impacted the lives of workers and the fact that Unions are unable to meet in the usual manner the legacy of Comrade Critchlow should not be down played or treated with any less importance.
The Trade Unions certainly have a key and critical role to play in managing the current situation and its aftermath but before venturing in that direction I wish to reiterate my invitation to the Fraternity to take steps to correct a major injustice being perpetuated against Comrade Critchlow.
In 1922 Critchlow spare headed the resistance to exorbitant house rental being charged and was successful in having the passage of the Rent Restriction Ordinance which capped the price that unscrupulous Landlords were able to charge Tenants. A committee of relieved Tenants on July 3rd of that year (1992), named that Day (July 3rd) as Critchlow Day.
The lament of Dave Martin “where are our heroes Caribbean” aptly illustrates our failure to truly recognize those who should be honoured.
Eighty-three (83) years later (2005) our National Assembly acting on a Motion Piloted by Mr. Winston Murray on behalf of the PNC/R Leader Robert Corbin declared Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow a National Hero from November 30, 2005.
The National Assembly also declared “November 28 henceforth Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow Day”. These are two feats worthy of annual observation and celebrations but it is most unfortunate that since then (2005) the Trade Union fraternity seemed to have forgotten that there is a day which is Officially designated as Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow Day. In this sense a hero has been abandoned.
The Enmore Martyrs who benefited from the ‘works’ of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow are recognised and remembered every year while Critchlow himself seems to have been forgotten. That is a serious indictment on the fraternity.
I therefore invite the movers and shakers in the movement to the urgently take steps to correct this deficiency.
That apart, Unions have a significant role to play in combatting the challenge associated with the COVID-19 pandemic which can be regarded as humanity’s worst enemy at this time.
All successful and progressive Trade Unionist including Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow recognise that they cannot function in isolation of the prevailing and over-arching political climate. They must approach trade unionism and labour-management relations holistically, yet neutrally and objectively from a nationalistic standpoint. They are required to function in defense of our sovereignty.
It is for that and other reasons that all Unions which embrace the principles of democracy, inclusivity, consensus, co-operation and integrity must be aware of anti-national forces who seek to use the March 2nd General and Regional Elections to undermine the goal of unity we must as a Nation keep fighting for.
By now all decent minded and reasonable thinking Guyanese would have recognised that those Elections have helped to unmask and reveal the many Trojan Horses among us. Trade Unions are therefore required to educate and sensitize their members who are thousands in numbers about the real enemies of our Republic and who constitutes obstacles to progress.
Union cannot be concerned with issues of “Bread and Butter alone”, they have to be concerned also with the Wider Political and Geo-Political issues at the local, regional and international levels.
The COVID-19 catastrophe has given rise to renewed and dynamic challenges for Trade Unions to confront and resolve. Less than six (6) months ago (December 2019) the United Nations Human Development Report (UNHDR) 2019 was released under the theme; Beyond Income, Beyond Averages, Beyond Today. With the sub-theme Inequalities in Human Development in the 21st Century.
I must submit that prior to the arrival of the COVID disaster that report held valuable lessons for the entire socio-economic and political systems of the world but with that deadly virus now in existence those lessons have become even more valuable, and important.
The sub-theme of the UN-HDR highlights the fact that the world was plagued by wide ranging levels of inequalities. However, what COVID-19 has done is exacerbate those inequalities much to the detriment of the most vulnerable citizens and therein lies the challenges for Trade Unions to overcome.
The overall effect and impact of this disease can be summarized in one word and that word is devastating. It has no doubt affected the Future of Work, the Quality of Work, the Quantity of Work, the Nature of Work, unemployment, under-employment, wage rates, social protection which are all secondary to the Health, Life and Survivability of workers and their families.
Governments throughout the world including our own have taken robust steps to beat back the frontiers of this pandemic but a lot more work needs to be done before we can return to a state of normalcy and the onward thrust to Human Development.
Summarizing the effects and possible solutions of the COVID-19 on a comparative basis with the 2008 global financial crisis, the Director General of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Mr. Guy Ryder said:
“this is no longer only a global health crisis; it is also a major labour market and economic crisis that is having a high impact on people. In 2008, the world presented a unified front to address the consequences of the Global financial crisis and the worst was averted. We need that kind of leadership and resolve now”.
From these sentiments it is clear that a holistic and unified approach is needed to overcome the health, economic and labour market issues which have been foisted upon the world by COVID-19.
All of the assessments and analyses of the fall-out of this disease suggest that the possible solutions reside in effective social dialogue which has evaded us as a Nation for some time now. It is submitted that the development and implementation of sustainable solutions is located within the parameters and framework of Social Dialogue.
It is against that background that the Trade Union fraternity during this solemn period of Critchlow Week encompassing Labour Day is encouraged to work towards making this modus effective.
The movement is reminded also to factor in all possible solutions which are the ideals of our Decent Work Country Programme, our commitment to the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals, our thrust for true Human Development and a Good Life for all.
Finally, the COVID phenomenon has exposed some gaps and weakness which need to be closed permanently. Gaps such an expansion in the un-organized and non-unionised labour force with a concomitant growth in the informal sector can no longer go unattended.
It therefore behoves Trade Unions to close these gaps while they endeavour to put COVID-19 to rest and rebuild the economy, which has been deemed to be the fastest growing economy in the world today. I believe that it will do no harm to encourage Unions to embrace the theme of the 2019 Human Development Report which is beyond Income, Beyond Averages and Beyond Today.
In your interactions with the other Social Partners you should endeavour that all possible solutions to the current challenges extend beyond today and certainly beyond COVID-19.
I pay homage today April 26, 2020 to the memory and works of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow and stand in solidarity with all workers as we celebrate Labour Week.