THE first observance of World Unemployment Day, on July 19, was held in Trinidad and Tobago in 2001.
A lack of interest resulted in the end of local observances.
This was a local attempt to address the seriousness of unemployment and for governments and non-governmental organisations to search for solutions to reduce and eventually eliminate unemployment.
In 2022, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that there were 205 million people were unemployed. The global unemployment rate, in 2022, was estimated as 5.7%. Such alarming facts highlight the need to focus on reducing and eventually eliminating unemployment.
The month of July is important in Labour History in the United States. The Minneapolis Teamsters’ strike in the United States occurred in 1934. In this strike, among those involved were truckers, building workers and taxi drivers. City police carried out a murderous attack on the strikers on July 20, killing two and injuring more than 55 in a day known as “Bloody Friday”.
And, July is also a significant month in working-class history of Trinidad and Tobago. What were the factors which triggered these protests in the Caribbean? The agitation of sugar workers in 1934 was part of the overall climate of protest by the working class in the British West Indian colony during the Great Depression (1929 to 1930s). The agony of the Great Depression added to the misery of the masses. Rampant poverty among labourers contributed to malnutrition, poor sanitation, illiteracy and unemployment. Housing provisions for workers in the oil and sugar industries were in a deplorable state.
From 1933 to 1935, unemployed Afro-Trinidadians in the city of Port-of-Spain (in north Trinidad) were mobilised in hunger marches under the leadership of Elma Francois, Jim Headley, Jim Barrette and Dudley Mahon of the National Unemployed Movement (NUM). The name of this group was later changed to the Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association (NWCSA). In 1934 the NUM played a role in spearheading and influencing demonstrations among discontented workers.
The NUM contacted the sugar workers and was informed by Poolbasie, an outspoken worker, of the problems facing the workers. These included high rents of barracks, high levels of unemployment, estate drivers who exploited young female sugar workers, increased tasks, and a drought which made the land unworkable.
The protest of 800 sugar workers on July 6, 1934, at Brechin Castle and Esperanza Estates, later joined by workers from the Central and Northern estates, set in motion a series of civil demonstrations.
The police sought to quell the outburst but they were attacked. After the violence subsided 12 people were arrested. The domino effect was evident as almost 15,000 sugar workers in Tunapuna, Chaguanas, Couva and San Fernando staged similar protests. Fortunately nobody was killed even though many protestors were jailed or fined. The spontaneity of the disturbances and the fact that no leaders emerged could be a reason why these working class disturbances tend to be forgotten.
Undoubtedly, this development in 1934 introduced a new factor in the challenge of the working class against capitalist domination. Although thwarted by police, the proposed hunger march of hundreds of unemployed persons and sugar workers on July 20, 1934, from Caroni to Port of Spain was planned to unite East Indian sugar workers and African hunger marchers (of the NUM), in a massive city demonstration.
On July 23 a similar demonstration, with approximately 2,000 people, occurred at Tunapuna. A day later, on July 24, there was a protest at the Caroni Sugar Estates where four policemen were beaten.
There are millions of unemployed persons across the globe and they all deserve to be treated as human beings. Nobody, who is physically and mentally competent, should be denied a job. Issues as racism and religious discrimination sometimes contribute to unemployment. Furthermore, those involved in protests and persons who are critics of governments are often denied jobs.
Dr Jereome Teelucksingh is a recipient of the Humming Bird (Gold) Medal for Education and Volunteerism. He is attached to the Department of History at the University of the West Indies at St Augustine. He has published books, chapters and journal articles on the Caribbean diaspora, masculinity, culture, politics, ethnicity and religion. Also, he has produced a documentary – Brown Lives Matter and presented papers at academic conferences.
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