Digging through the Express archives a few days ago, I came across a 1975 photo of a very fit-looking Raffique Shah, hands in pockets, chest thrust forward, eyes confidently focused on the world beyond the camera.
He was in the centre of a line of men, all posing for Jai Sitahal who, like Herman Roop Dass, was that rare breed of community corrrespondents who provided the sole and highly valuable connection between the Port of Spain media and life in Central Trinidad.
As I surveyed the line-up of men alongside Shah, one face jumped out. It was my father, wearing his trademark Wilkinson hat.
Like the other men in the photo, he was being presented to the country as a branch representative of the new Islandwide Cane Farmers' Trade Union (ICFTU). The ICFTU had mounted a major challenge, industrial as well as legal, to force a change in the law that recognised the rival Trinidad Islandwide Cane Farmers Association (TICFA) headed by Norman Girwar as the sole representative body for cane farmers.
The fight to get cane farmers the right to be represented by a union of their choice was one that Shah, the unrepentant military hero of 1970, had taken on as his own after his successful appeal against a 20-year sentence for mutiny. His co-mutineers Lieutenants Rex Lasalle and Michael Bazie who had been jailed for 15 and seven years, respectively, had also been freed but Shah was the only one to choose to return to the path of political defiance, which, in this case, had shifted to the terrain of labour.
And what a fight it would be!
Cane farmers, whose annual sugar cane crops were the sole means of income for the entire year, would eventually take the hard decision to walk away from their fields and leave the crops fertilised by their sweat, to dry and rot. It was a choice to which they had been pushed when, even after victory in the courts, the British owners of Caroni Ltd, Tate & Lyle, continued to refuse to recognise ICFTU.
Because farmers were also employers, providing income to cane-cutters and other support staff, entire communities were affected by the decision to withhold their sugar cane from the factory until they had got their victory.
Ultimately, their stand would pay off. Tate & Lyle took its profits and departed, leaving Caroni Ltd to be nationalised and re-christened Caroni (1975) Ltd. But sugar cane was over. Faced with having to pay the real cost of labour, this industry that had always resisted innovation because of its easy access to free and cheap labour, subsidised from the start by the sweat of generations, had run its course.
Eventually, all that would be left to do was to negotiate the terms of separation between people and industry, a matter which every government since then has managed to bungle, and which in 2012, forms the sub-text of such disputes as that between the Highway Re-Route group and the State.
At the core is the issue of value in this society: the value of people, their labour and their products. In a society that has been built on free labour, in one case, and highly devalued labour in the other, the process by which value is ascribed is fundamental to the issues of society, economy and equity. Add ethnic identity and what is volatile becomes explosive.
Naturally, it is in the interest of the status quo to ignore and dismiss discussions about the process of valuation, for it is the job of the status quo to ensure its own protection and preservation. That is the very definition of status quo.
But for those on the side of social and economic transformation as an imperative for success and survival into the future, the founding conditions of our society, based on unpaid and undervalued labour cannot be denied, de-linked and divorced from the evaluation of, and prescriptions for modern Trinidad and Tobago.
This is an issue not only about organised labour and labour employed by industry; it is a transcendental issue about value, which is germane to the mysteries of why the most creative of our people—entrepreneurs, writers, musicians, artists, farmers and other producers will almost never be able to enjoy the lifestyle of merchants and traders whose income is derived from the profits from the sale of goods produced by other people in other lands.
As long as the historically-determined love for things foreign is sustained, this business model will flourish as the best business in town, making it the most preferred as it sucks the best resources in talent and investment from the rest of the system.
In trumpeting the issues of innovation and entrepreneurship, we should explore the shibboleths that we have imposed on ourselves about ourselves. To diagnose our problems as one of risk aversion, ethic-based fear and poor market demand for local products is to limit ourselves to analysis of symptoms which would only lead to solutions that are limited, fundamentally flawed and are therefore a waste of time, money and hope.
On Tuesday, as we mark the 75th anniversary milestone of organised labour, we need an honest discussion about ourselves.
It is not enough to frame the discussion in terms of labour and capital, haves and have-nots, black and white, African and Indian. While all are relevant, each has to be located in its place in a wider discussion about how we got here with the problems and challenges that we have, and the solutions that we, as a society, must invent to exploit the opportunities that stand before us all.
For this, we have to begin the conversation about value for which there is no better place to start than in ourselves and in our own lives. What are we willing to put out money for, and why? Why do we quibble at $4 for a piping hot doubles with freshly-made sauces, created by people who are a producing part of our economy, but have no problem paying $9.50 for fries shipped frozen all the way from wherever since whenever, produced by people who are not part of our economy, and sold by businesses that are consumers and exporters of foreign exchange?
As pedestrian and mundane as it seems, the answer to this question is at the heart of the solution we should be reaching for as we try to find a way towards cultural confidence and economic independence. To achieve this, however, requires a special kind of politics that would allow us to get there without destroying each other and without damaging our prospects for success in re-valuing the worth of producers like my cane farmer father.
• Sunity Maharaj is the editor of the
T&T Review and director of the
Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies