THE SHOOTING AT SKELDON, 1957
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Even as the political situation in the country was taking centre stage, workers in the industrial sector continued to raise their voices against existing working conditions. At Skeldon sugar a labour dispute in January 1957 resulted in police violence against the sugar workers. The dispute started when shovel-men were given the task to dig drains to a depth of six inches in the field. The workers complained that the supervisors used faulty measuring devices thus forcing them to do more work than was required. In addition, they protested against the low payment they received for the work they completed.
This problem was brought to the attention of the Sugar Producers' Association (SPA) by the secretary of the MPCA, the recognised trade union. The SPA then referred the matter to the management of the Skeldon estate which did not, at that time, regard it as a matter of emergency, and refused to meet with representatives of the union unless five day's notice for a meeting was given.
The shovel-men, in an effort to press their case, called a strike on 13 February with the support of the union. Two of the workers, Salim and Mendonca, organised the others in a protest demonstration, and other sugar workers joined the strike in solidarity. Throughout the day, a large crowd gathered in the vicinity of the factory with the intention of halting all operations there, and some factory workers who did not join them were verbally abused and assaulted.
Early in the evening a police contingent arrived and attempted to disperse the crowd. After this effort failed, police reinforcements, equipped with rifles, tear smoke and grenades, were summoned to the scene. The crowd was ordered to disperse and leave the scene, but this request was not obeyed. The police then fired tear gas which caused people in the crowd to stampede and scatter. One policeman, manning a machine-gun near the entrance of the factory, opened fire on the stampeding workers and injured 13 of them. The police, shortly after, arrested 13 persons, including Mendonca whom they claimed was inciting the other workers.
After peace was restored, the Governor appointed a commission of enquiry comprising Justice Kenneth Stoby and W. G. Carmichael. This commission heard evidence from 43 witnesses, 18 of whom were called by the MPCA which presented evidence on the workers' behalf.
In evidence presented by the police, a claim was made that when the policemen arrived on the scene, they found the workers disturbing the peace by cursing and pelting bricks and pieces of sugar cane. In countering this accusation, the MPCA's witnesses claimed that the workers who had gathered outside the factory were singing and enjoying themselves.
The commission found that the policeman who opened fire made an error of judgement since the nearest person to him was more than 75 yards away from the entrance to the factory and he was not threatened in any way whatsoever. The commission also refused to accept the police contention that they were pelted with stones and pieces of sugar cane since the evidence showed that the police moved freely among the crowd. As a result it concluded that the crowd did not present any danger to other persons and property and thus violent police actions was unnecessary.
Regarding the cause of the strike, the commission stated that the management of the estate should be aware that when shovel-men dug six inches of drain, such a task actually involved more than half of the work needed to excavate twelve-inch drains. It, however, did not make any ruling on the demand for extra pay by the shovel-men.
The management of Skeldon estate did not hesitate to victimise some of the workers who went on strike. One of those who was penalised was Mendonca who was dismissed from his job during the period when the Commission was holding its meetings.