The Voice of Coloured Labour. George Padmore (editor) 1945
By Joe S. Annan
The Labour Movement on the Gold Coast is comparatively young. Before 1939, the workers in the mines, the railways, and the mercantile field made several attempts at organising themselves into some form of Workers’ Union for the purpose of bargaining for increases in wages and better working conditions. After the 1939 and 1941 railway strikes, in which several other workers (notably the Municipal and the Public Works Dept.) joined, it was strongly felt that the organisation of the working classes into properly constituted Unions was necessary and by the kind co-operation between the British Trade Union Movement and the Colonial Office an experienced Trade Union official, Mr. Jones of the Welsh Miners’ Union, was entrusted with this all-important work. In less than 18 months he had helped the Western Province Motor Drivers’ Association and the Gold Coast Railway African Employees’ Union to be organised into registered unions with legal recognition. The Railway Movement has in 2 years raised 3,500 members, which represent more than 60 per cent of the total number of Africans employed on the railways. The Mines Union will soon be registered and it will certainly be an uphill task to bring into its membership most of the 45,000 employees. The Mercantile Union, which has a membership of over 2,000, also awaits registration. A Union of Domestic Servants has also been formed. Besides these there are the craft unions, such as the Goldsmiths’ Union, Leatherworkers’ Union, and Tailors’ Union. In each of these Unions membership is entirely voluntary. The figures given above may not be very impressive, but if one considers that four years ago labour on the Gold Coast was unorganised, he will surely observe a progressive growth of Trade Union activity in the Colony.
It should be clearly pointed out that the position of the Labour Officer is purely advisory and consultative: his position does not in any way prejudice the decisions and actions of the union; in fact, once established and registered, the union can often carry on without his help, except in special circumstances. The Labour Officer is out on the coast to help and co-operate with the working classes to build up a Labour Movement on generally accepted democratic trade union principles, allowance being given to local conditions, labour traditions and customs. The whole organisation is in the hands of the Africans-its officers are elected by popular votes; conferences are held annually and the problems discussed are no different in the main from those discussed at a typical British conference, for the needs and problems of the working class are the same everywhere.
In the Gold Coast Railway African Employees’ Union as in the other unions, each member pays 1s. a month, which represents about 3 percent of the labourer’s monthly pay. We have a rather unorthodox method of collecting our dues – a method which may perhaps sound strange to the average Trade Unionist in Britain. By an arrangement made by the union’s executive and the labour officer on the one hand and the railway management on the other, the chief accountant of the railway, with the approval of the Government, has agreed to deduct the monthly dues from the wages and salaries of the members, 1 percent of the money collected being deducted by the management for secretarial and other expenses. This method of collecting dues is adopted because it is convenient and expedient under existing local circumstances. The railway on the Gold Coast is a Government concern and all pensionable and non-pensionable staff are eligible for membership of the union. Another striking difference between our organisation and the British Railway Union is that the clerks and all the manual workers are in one and the same organisation, unlike the British practice, where it is split into the National Union of Railwaymen (manual workers) and the Railway Clerks Association.
The problem of increase of wages is a pressing one. The average labourer earns Is. 6d. a day which is 9s. a week as compared with 65s. a week for his British labourer comrade. It is true that we are comparing two classes of workmen in different categories, but it is also true that disparity in the wages of the two is enormous and unkind. The popular formula that the standard of living of the African is low and must therefore be paid such ridiculously low wages can no longer be applied. Most of the working classes live in the big industrial towns where house rents and cost of food are very high. An average living room measuring 10 ft. by 10 ft. costs at least 15s. a month to rent. Into this the worker, his wife and children pack themselves: the room is used as bedroom, dining room, lounge and for many other purposes. This leads to overcrowding with consequent bad health and inefficiency at work. Food costs at least 2s. a day; this figure represents the absolute minimum level: it does not take into account extras which are sometimes needed for a change ! With medical expenses, children’s school fees and clothing, the minimum wage that any labourer should earn in order to have a fairly comfortable living is 3s. a day, which works out at 18s. a week; anything; below this is inhuman and a denial of the bare minimum standard of living for the worker.
I have been asked by several pressmen and others to indicate what the immediate needs and plans of the Labour Movement on the Gold Coast are, and I wish briefly to describe these:
1. I believe that our direct and foremost need is the immediate setting up of a Wages Board which must have one of the workers among it< members. This Board will examine and fix minimum standard wages for all classes of workers; it must also have the power to enforce its decisions; before this Board all matters affecting the wages of the workers must be thrashed out, as well as social insurance, health and old-age pension schemes.
2. It is necessary for all unions on the Gold Coast to be united into the Gold Coast Trade Union Congress. The supreme importance of this Congress cannot be over-emphasised. Unless the various unions act united it is difficult, if not impossible, to have efficient labour organisation and to present a common front in the struggle for social security. This must lead to the idea of the formation of the West African Federation of Labour, which will consist of the national Labour Movements of Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, and the Gambia. The formation of this block is essential to the idea of the Trade Union International which has been discussed at the World Trade Union Conference in London.
3. Organised labour must be represented on the Legislative Council of the Gold Coast. This labour seat must be filled by a person to be elected by the workers themselves. I believe this will make for practical co-operation and better understanding between the Government and labour.
4. I should like to see a comprehensive building scheme to accommodate the working classes; the country owes a lot to these workers and she should be in a position now to provide decent and spacious buildings for them. It ought to be possible for the workers to buy these houses on the hire-purchase system.
5. I am of the opinion that the union should select two full-time officials who, after a preliminary training on the Coast by the Labour Officers, should spend at least six months in Britain, where they will see British labour organisations at work. This experience, I contend, will be extremely valuable. Already by the courtesy of the British T.U.C., Ruskin College, Oxford, gives a correspondence course in Trade Union subjects to two members of the Gold Coast Railway Union, and I know how very useful these lessons have been to the members concerned.
Then also we must call for educational facilities to be made available to all children, and technical schools to be established to train African personnel to take their rightful places in the higher grades of labour. Evening classes for adults must be provided, and I am happy in the knowledge that the Railway Union has formulated its own plans to implement this scheme; a beginning has already been made at Sekondi, the headquarters of the union.
Lastly, adequate faculties should be provided to safeguard the health of the workers, and I believe it is time that Factory Ordinances were introduced into the Gold Coast. The union must be steadfast and persistent in securing for its members such reasonable amenities as workers’ canteens, break-times for meals, shortening of working hours, higher wages, etc., all of which are so vital. I know we are not alone in the struggle for social security; we have the sympathy and at least the moral support of organised labour throughout the world, more especially of the British movement which, with its vast experience, must rally to the aid of a fellow union in a just and fair cause.