David Breen

Jamaicans in Britain

(January 1955)

From Socialist Review, Vol. 4 No. 5, January 1955, pp. 6–7.
Transcribed by Ian Birchall, Nina Kidron & Richard Kuper.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

This year an estimated total of 10,000 immigrants from the West Indies arrived in Britain; next year’s total may well be 15,000. The numbers themselves are small – there are at present only about 80,000 West Indians in the country – but the cry of protest that has gone up from various quarters is not, and needs to be faced by every left-winger within the Labour Movement.

Reactionary Reaction

To Labour’s eternal shame, it was Alderman W.T. Bowen, Labour member of Birmingham City Council, that started the ball of protest rolling. He asked the General Purposes Committee of the Council “to open discussions with the government departments on problems arising from the influx of coloured immigrants into the city.” The Tory Government needed no encouragement and that same week, Hopkinson admitted in the House of Commons that “the Government ... was contemplating a committee to consider whether it was advisable to control the entry into Britain of coloured holders of British passports.”

The rot has spread deep, very deep, even within the Labour Movement; so deep that a Times special correspondent could write the following without eliciting any official denial from trade union headquarters:

“It is also true that the trade unionists, except in such undertakings as the Post Office and London Transport, where it is a point of honour that there shall be no colour bar, often have an undertaking with managements that the hallowed rule of ‘last in, first out’ shall not apply to whites when coloured immigrants are employed, and that coloured workers shall not be promoted over white.” (Times, 9/11/54).

Even the branch level has not remained unaffected and we hear of resolutions like that of Croydon N.U.R. demanding that coloured workers be declared ineligible for supervisory grades.

Socialists are appalled by this reaction. Nothing is more dangerous to the Labour Movement than this division, than the break-down of working-class solidarity. But appalled as we are, we can readily understand the background – as long as we live in a society which does not guarantee security in living standards and in jobs, the ordinary rank and filer will defend whatever temporary security he has against all comers, whether it is a conscious attack by the bosses or what he considers to be “competition” on the part of foreign workers, these fears are natural, but the instinctive forms of self-defence by means of discrimination and internal divisions are useless and dangerous. How useless and dangerous they are can be seen by looking at the economic background of the West Indian immigration.

The Economic Background

The West Indies are an agricultural economy in which British, American and Canadian capitalists control the key positions. As always, imperialist control has led to the most extreme poverty: in Barbados only 21 out of every 1,000 income-earners earned sufficient to pay taxes in 1952, in British Guiana only 11, in Trinidad 12, and in Jamaica 17. At the same time, 420 out of every thousand income-earners in Britain paid taxes in equivalent income brackets. (Sir George Seel, K.C.M.G., Development and Welfare in the West Indies, 1952, H.M.S.O., 1953, p. 17) Because the 3½ million population is so desperately poor the foreign capital invested in the Islands can only find a market overseas; bananas, sugar, citrus fruits, coconuts, rice and so on are all exported so that the export of dividends can go on.

This concentration on export crops has serious repercussions on employment and labour conditions. Work on the plantations is mainly unskilled and can be undertaken by children as well as adults and this places a premium on large families. In Jamaica, over 20,000 persons are added to the working population each year; in Barbados the annual increase is said to be over 3,500; in St. Vincent, with a total population of 70,000, it is about 1,000.

Unemployment is very widespread. This year at least 10 per cent, of the working population in Jamaica is unemployed; an unknown percentage is inadequately employed. In his Industrial Development of the Caribbean, Professor Arthur Lewis estimated that a total of 413,000 new jobs will have to be found within the next ten years, made up of 140,000 now unemployed, 149,000 for population increase, 74,000 released from agriculture and 50,000 from domestic service.

A huge reserve army of labour like this coupled with the unskilled nature of the work on estates means low wage rates in agriculture the official Report on Labour Conditions in the West Indies by Sir Granville St. John Orde Browne (H.M.S.O., 1939, p. 94) put daily wage rates on banana and sugar plantations at 1/6 to 2/6 per day. Clerical and administrative workers receive an average of £23/17/6 a year, transport workers average £19/10/0. (P. Deane, The Measurement of Colonial National Incomes, Cambridge, 1948, p. 102)

Low wages are not the whole story. Chronic, mass unemployment means that those lucky enough to be employed are subjected to sweat-shop conditions: bakers in Barbados have a work-week of between 65 and 85 hours; bus-drivers work a 10-hour day. (Orde Browne, op. cit., p. 58)

Again, because foreign capital has managed to preserve the purely agricultural character of the West Indian economy and has a vast fund of unemployed to call upon, there was never any inducement for it to mechanise agriculture which has remained a seasonal occupation with “hands” being taken on and off in response to changes in weather conditions like a pair of gloves. For example, in his report for 1951 the Acting Labour Commissioner for Barbados showed that 160 sugar estates employed 13,100 workers at the peak period but only 9,700 during the off season. In Jamaica, the drop in sugar workers at the end of the cane crop is nearly 40 per cent. (Sir George Seel, op. cit., p. 68). The banana industry, although less seasonal, provides employment for only an average of 4½ days per week. Even transport, dependent as it is on seasonal crops, can only employ people for a fraction of the working year: “for stevedores and other dockside labourers .... a year’s work was equivalent to a 10-hour week for 40 weeks a year”. (P. Deane, op. cit., p. 99. My emphasis – D.B.) In general, “Employed persons, taking together both wage workers and persons working for their own account, work relatively few hours in the week. Almost one in every three employed persons in a week of July, 1950, spent less than 30 hours at work.” (Venture, Journal of the Fabian Colonial Bureau, September 1951)

Solution for the West Indies

Professor A. Lewis estimates the capital investment required for new industrial and agricultural concerns to take up the unemployed at £130 million at the very least (without improving the standard of living or changing the wage structure). During the first five years of the Colonial Development Corporation, the West Indies were allocated £1.6 million or ⅚ths of 1 percent, of the required amount. At the same time foreign capital takes out more than this sum every year. The capital for industrialisation in the West Indies is simply not forthcoming; until it is, the economy of the West Indies must stagnate.

Industrialisation is the only method of absorbing the increasing population, of raising wages by raising productivity and increasing skills, of making the economy less dependent on the cycle of boom and slump in world markets for agricultural products. But big foreign capital won’t hear of it. Tate and Lyle, Booker Bros., the United Fruit Co., and the others, are geared to deal with agricultural products, they will not countenance industry competing for their cheap supply of labour, they do not want to see a tariff wall built around the West Indies to protect new industries. Their interests are diametrically opposed to the one solution to the economic problems of the West Indies.

Caught between utter destitution at home and the opposition of international capital to the finding of any solution, the West Indian has only one way out – to get out and find employment abroad. Until the monopoly concerns are smashed there can be no total solution to the problems of the West Indies. Until then, it is a question of each for himself in escaping from the wreck. And now that the U.S. has tightened up its immigrant labour regulations, Britain is the obvious goal.

What Can We Do?

British colonialism is driving the West Indian from his home; British capital abroad is the crutch on which British capitalism at home depends. British capital abroad uproots a labour force and forces it into a different society with firmer working class traditions; British capitalism at home uses it to undermine just those traditions of solidarity and international socialism.

By falling into the easy trap of colour bar and discrimination we achieve nothing but disunity; our natural ally in the fight to destroy capitalism is the peoples of the colonial world, eager to break out of the deep-freeze of Imperialism.

The British Labour Movement must demand a West Indies for the West Indians! For the withdrawal of British troops in the West Indies! For the nationalisation of the holdings of British capitalists in the West Indies and their inclusion in an expanded programme of economic and technical aid! And, in the meantime, for the integration of the West Indian workers in this country into the British Labour Movement, in the common struggle for Socialism!

Last updated on 16 February 2017