THE VENN COMMISSION
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The strike in the sugar industry and the shooting of sugar workers at Enmore forced the Colonial Office in England to agree that the sugar industry in Guyana was facing a crisis, and that urgent action was needed to improve the social conditions of the sugar workers. As a result, the Secretary of State for the Colonies in October 1948 appointed a three-member Commission to examine and report on the problems affecting the industry. The Commission was headed by Dr. J. A. Venn, a professor of Cambridge University, while the other members were R. Sudell, an agricultural journalist, and B. G. Smallman of the Colonial Office as secretary.
The Commission arrived in Guyana in late December and during the next six weeks visited the main sugar plantations. The team also took evidence from 192 persons at meetings held in Georgetown and New Amsterdam.
The Commission's final report, submitted in July 1949, paid special attention to problems affecting women in the sugar industry. It noted that in 1948, 28 percent of the sugar workers were women, and spoke of the strenuous labour they had to perform in weeding, moulding cane and jumping over canals. The women were forced into this situation to supplement the poor wages earned by their husbands. Many of them, the report stated, had to be up by 3.00 a.m. in order to prepare meals and to leave for work, and they would not return home until the evening. As a result, their children's care was neglected since there was no parent at home to care for them. The Commission was concerned, too, that female workers were supervised by male drivers.
Among the recommendations of the Venn Commission were the following:
1. Each estate must provide crèches to care for young children, while tasks should be arranged to allow women workers to return home to prepare meals and look after their children.
2. Women must not work in water (canals and flooded fields), and gangs of women workers should be supervised by women overseers.
3. All workers must be supplied with fresh drinking water, and sheltered areas must be erected for protection against rain and to provide places for workers to have their meals.
4. Roads must be constructed so that workers could travel in comfort to the fields.
5. For factory workers, social amenities such as proper toilet facilities, bath rooms and canteens must be provided.
6. There must be proper inspection and care of machinery on the estates.
7. The Workmen's Compensation Ordinance must be amended to give recognition to the claims made by common-law wives and their children. This was necessary since most marriages among sugar workers were not official.
8. Measures should be taken to halt the use of child labour in the sugar industry.
9. The title of "drivers" should be changed to "headmen".
10. The Medical Department should institute regular inspection of housing, water supply and sanitation on the sugar estates.
11. Plots of lands must be provided to regular workers to cultivate rice, root crops and vegetables.
12. The British Government should provide a subsidy of one pound sterling for each ton of sugar produced in Guyana for at least the next 15 years.
13. All the "ranges" in which sugar workers lived must be torn down and replaced with proper weatherproof housing by 1953.
14. The "cut and load" system which influenced the 1948 strike should remain in force, but the "cut and drop" system should operate when there was not an adequate supply of punts.
15. A wages board, to fix wages, should be established for the entire sugar industry. It should be made up of an equal number of representatives from the employer and the unions, and two neutral members appointed by the Government.
The Venn Commission also stated that a contributory pension scheme should be established. It recommended that male adult workers should contribute 2.5 percent and the employers 5 percent of the weekly earning of the workers. But this scheme was not implemented mainly because the SPA was not supportive of it, and also because the MPCA, the recognized union, was not willing to struggle for its implementation.
The Commission examined the demands for recognition by the GIWU as the bargaining union for sugar workers instead of the MPCA. It disagreed with the immediate claim made by GIWU saying that if workers maintained their membership of the union for about three years, the union would then have grounds to make its demand for recognition.