HARDSHIP CAUSES WORKING PEOPLE
By the beginning of 1981 life had become more and more difficult for the Vincentian working people. The supposed “balance” between wages and prices had gotten out of hand and the still very colonial economy, now compounded by the ravages of the natural disasters of the two previous years, could not deliver solutions.
While wages remained stagnant, at what one could very well term “starvation wages”, prices, in a very open import-dominated economy kept skyrocketing and wages, given the imbalance in power between workers on the one hand, and the commercial sector and government on the other, unable to even enter the race, much more keep apace.
The local Civil Service Association (CSA), the forerunner of today’s Public Service Union (PSU) , for instance had estimated that the cost of living had increased by 171 percent between 1977 and 1980 alone. An examination of a list of selected import items between 1970 and 1980 published by the Ministry of Trade revealed the following:
Flour – from 17 c per lb. to 60 c per lb.
Brown sugar- from 15 c per lb to $1.20 per lb.
Chicken (back and neck) – 41 c to $1.10
Evaporated milk (14 oz.) – from 42 c per tin to $1.35 Gasolene – from 91 c per gal. to $5.00 per gal.
Kerosene – 56 c per gal to $5.00
This at a time when workers existed on virtually starvation wages and there was no compulsory recognition law to facilitate unionisation of workers and collective bargaining. I was looking through my archives and found a letter from a leading commercial firm in Kingstown dismissing a worker. Note this section of the letter:
“We attach your cheque in final settlement as follows-
Salary to Jan. 5 1981 (1 week) $29.63
Salary 1 month in lieu $200.00
Holiday pay (2 weeks) $100.00
Yes, our young workers should know what their parents had to cope with, $ 200.00 per month.
The government itself was under siege in the still colonial economy, severely damaged by the natural disasters of the two previous years. To its credit, it sought to introduce a programme of industrialisation, or import substitution as it was called, reintroducing the sugar industry and boldly initiating the Diamond Dairy milk plant. However both suffered from problems all too typical of state top-down approaches and inefficiencies and were themselves a source of public ridicule and industrial disputes.
Indeed if one had to characterize the economic atmosphere in early 1981 in SVG, widespread industrial dispute was evident. Trade unions were hamstrung in their wage demands by backward anti-worker legislation and strikes and other forms of industrial action severely affected both the private and public sectors. There were strikes on the then Industrial Estate at Campden Park, at Bottlers Ltd, manufacturers of the famed J-U-C beverages, on opening day at the Mt Bentick Sugar factory, at the state owned public utility, the Central Water Authority and even on the state-owned Richmond Vale Estate in North Leeward. SVG was literally boiling!
Next week: The State reacts, but in whose favour?