Friday 7 October 2011

Wages in Trinidad and Tobago

In history, wages are an important aspect of the evaluation of human time. A look on the development of wages in Trinidad and Tobago after emancipation.

With emancipation, the question of mass paid labour arose in Trinidad and Tobago for the first time. Before that, the system of slavery prevented the 'worker' from getting paid in cash, and the 'employer' from having to obtain this cash.
In 1834, after the abolition of slavery, the problem of wages for people who work arose for the first time in Trinidad and Tobago on a large scale. And it involved problems for everybody: the ex-slaves, now called 'apprentices' for a period of six years, had the problem of finding someone who they would like to work for and who could pay them, and the ex-masters had the problem of finding people who would work for them and of finding the ready cash to pay them with. To grasp the problem from today's perspective is not easy: one must not forget that in those days, neither the planters nor the mass of ex-slaves had ever encountered anything other than the economic system of slavery in their lifetime! Neither of them had any experience whatsoever in organising a system of employment.
The biggest problem for both sides, employer and employees, was cash flow. Like in any agricultural economy depending on crops at a certain time of year, credit is an important aspect. There simply is no steady flow of cash that the employer could pay out to his workers regularly. The workers, on the other hand, depend on being regularly paid. Even for the most well-meaning planter, this problem posed itself massively after 1834.
The other big problem was one of communication. Both planters and ex-slaves did not have the vocabulary to negotiate and bargain,, which often led quickly to work on the plantation coming on a standstill. Tobago was particularly hit; not being able to pay enough in cash, the Tobago planters frequently offered share-cropping to the workers. The island's plantation economy went into a steady decline after emancipation, and at the turn of the 20th century, the bankrupt colony was annexed to Trinidad.
In Trinidad, the situation was slightly different in that the main effect of emancipation was that the wages rose considerably, approx. 58% between 1838 and 1842. The reason was mainly that the ex-slaves were better at negotiating their terms. Wanting to improve upon their lot during slavery, they refused to enter into contracts whereas they would be paid by the hour or the day, instead, they opted to be paid by the task. This went very much against the mentality of the planter: like any farmer anywhere in the world, it is normal to work from sunrise to sunset, with lengthy breaks for breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack. On the other hand, with labour in short supply and the wages being high, the workers often were able to obtain enough money to get by not working every day. The situation quickly went into 'loggerheads', which resulted in the introduction of the system of indentureship and the importation of thousands of Indian workers, 143,939 between 1845 and 1917, to be exact.
This changed the wage situation considerably. While in 1838, the wage for a 'task' ranged between 40 and 65 cents, a hundred years later, in 1938, the weekly wage for unskilled labour in sugar was a mere 35 cents per day! For the East Indian indentured workers, wages in the 1850s averaged 30 to 40 cents per day, and up to the 1870s, the wage per task was between 20 to 25 cents. As more and more Indians came to Trinidad, wages sunk as low as 72 cents per week, even though the Immigration Amendment Ordinance of 1872 had fixed it at $ 1.25. As a compensation, the Indians were offered lodgings, rations and clothing from the employer he was indentured to.
Undoubtedly, the indentureship system in Trinidad played massively into the hands of the employers. The effects of falling wages was not only felt in the working class, but increasingly also in the rising middle class. The reform movements of the late 19th century, which stemmed from the black and coloured intelligentsia, were a direct result of that. The influx of labour had saved the sugar economy, cocoa was on the rise - now many voices started to make themselves heard with a view to distribute the resulting wealth socially more just.
With the introduction of the sugar beet, sugar prices fell rapidly towards the turn of the 19th century. The result was that wages on the estates in Trinidad were lowered massively - as much as 60%. In the mid-1890s, about 30% of the workers on the estates earned as little as six pence per day, to much to die, to little to live. The result was that people began to despise agricultural work and flee the country. By the 1870s, Port of Spain started to be the magnet for unemployed, idle and disillusioned people, who were shacking up in the eastern part of the town, or lived in various states of vagrancy.
Cocoa came as the salvation for many towards the turn of the 20th century. Unlike sugar, cocoa cultivation was profitable even when only applied to a small acreage. Many of the rural Indians in particular were able to make the transition from employment in the sugar industry to making a more comfortable living with a small cocoa plantation. Wages on a cocoa plantation were low, between 25 to 35 cents for women per day, and 35 to 50 cents for men - the usual unfair disparity being apparent.
Besides the agricultural sector, the business sector - import, export, transport and distribution - and the manufacturing sector were also expanding at a rate in 19th century Trinidad. These two sectors, along with the oil sector, needed employees. But even with the increasing demand in the various non-agricultural sectors, wages remained low - $3 to $5 per week were normal. Clerical personnel and the civil service earned wages of £120 - £150 per annum - that didn't go very far and upwardly mobile people often indebted themselves more than they could handle.
The only solution for the employed to press for higher wages was political representation. This they were officially denied under Crown Colony rule. However, 'subversive' organisations like the Trinidad Workingman's Association were formed by Trinidadians of various ethnic backgrounds. After the First World War, when local people came back as heroes and often highly decorated for action in foreign countries, a new self-view of workers started to pervade the country, and in almost twenty years of protests, demonstrations and often bloody confrontations with the authorities, the wage situation was gradually improved

1 comment:

klash said...

I find this post to be interesting and extremely informative. I ask one question though, where did you find all this data, I don't ask from suspicion but rather from curiosity as I am researching this topic I would like to be able to cite your work or hopefully receive a tip from you on where to look for such data.
Thank you,
Mohamed H. Ibrahim