Close this window to return to the main menu

Previous Chapter      Next Chapter

Throughout the 1930s there were disturbances in the British territories in the Caribbean. As a result, the British Government appointed the West Indian Royal Commission on 5 August 1938 to investigate and to make recommendations on the social and economic conditions in the various territories. The Commission was led by Lord Moyne (the former Walter Edward Guinness) and among its members was Sir Walter Citrine, General Secretary of the British Trades Union Congress.

The Royal Commission, popularly referred to as the Moyne Commission, visited Guyana during the period 27 January to 20 February, 1939, and it was in session at the time of the Leonora disturbances. Among the organisations presenting opinions to the Commissions were the nine registered trade unions, the Civil Service Association and the Sugar Producers' Association. A number of individuals, including sugar workers, also gave evidence at meetings of the Commission. Workers who appeared before the Commission complained of fear and victimisation at their workplaces. A total of 43 persons presented evidence at sittings before the Commission.

Even though the Commission completed its report in 1940, the British Government did not release it to the public until July 1945 after World War II ended. Despite this, some of its recommendations were acted upon immediately after the report was submitted to the British Government.

It was felt that because of the Commission's sharp criticisms of colonial policy in the Caribbean, the British Government thought that if the report was released, the German Government would have used it for war propaganda.

The Moyne Commission exposed the horrible conditions under which people of the British Caribbean lived. It pointed to the deficiencies in the education system, and economic and social problems of unemployment and juvenile delinquency. It also sharply criticised the poor health conditions and expressed concern over the high infant mortality rate.

It was especially critical of the plight of sugar workers and small farmers, and condemned unsafe conditions at workplaces. It was also very concerned over the use of child labour and the discrimination against women at workplaces, especially since they worked long hours for less pay than men received. It found, too, that the interests of the workers were virtually unprotected since there were no collective labour agreements, while only the employers decided on what wages should be.

About drainage and irrigation, the Commission stated that almost all the well drained land was owned by the sugar producers. It noted: "The areas devoted to rice and pastures are badly drained and abound in large swampy areas where almost amphibious cattle, sheep and pigs eke out an unusual existence."

The Commission also looked at the political system operating in all the territories. It recommended the expansion of the franchise, and extending the opportunities for people other than the financially influential to stand for election. To do this, it recommended the reduction of the margin between the qualifications for registration as a voter and those for membership of the Legislative Council. This eventually led to the establishment of a Franchise Commission which in 1944 recommended the lowering of qualifications voting and for membership of the Legislative Council. These qualifications were in the areas of land ownership, value of land owned, property occupation, income, and literacy in any language.

Overall, the Commission felt that the root of the disturbances was a demand for better living conditions by the people.

Many of its recommendations were aimed at alleviating the conditions affecting workers. It felt that there should be compulsory registration of trade unions and audit of their funds. With regard to the fixing of wages, it stated that in each territory a wages board should be established to carry out this process. The Commission also proposed the establishment of unemployment insurance and adequate and regular factory inspections to reduce accidents. Its recommendation for the establishment of a Labour Department was acted upon in 1942 and a Commissioner of Labour was appointed.

Another very important proposal was for the Government to consult with the sugar producers for the imposition of a welfare levy on every ton of sugar produced. This recommendation resulted in the establishment in 1947 of a Labour Welfare Fund and money paid into this fund was allocated generally for the building of housing schemes for sugar workers.