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C. Dallas

Colour Bar in Britain

(March 1957)

From Socialist Review, Vol. 6 No. 6, March 1957.
Republished in A Socialist Review, London 1965, pp. 339–43.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

One of the problems the British Labour movement faces is the question of the attitude to be adopted towards our colonial brothers who come to this country.

Desperate Poverty

In the first place, why do they come? Quite simply, hunger drives them from their own homes. Wages, when the native of a colony is lucky enough to find work, are barely enough to keep body and soul together: £2–£3 a week on the sugar plantations in Jamaica, 25 shillings a week for cocoa workers in Ghana, a mere 7/9 a week for agricultural labourers in Kenya and 25/– for workers in Nairobi (if they are lucky enough to get permission to work there). That is, when the worker is working.

But unemployment will probably see him penniless for a large part of the year. About 20 per cent of the Jamaican population is unemployed. Others, like those on the sugar plantations, work only seasonally. Unemployment is chronic in all the colonies and has no hope of disappearing as long as imperialism keeps its tight hold over the colonies, for the simple reason that it prevents the creation of industries in the colonies. The big British firms can’t allow industrialization. It might lead to an all-round rise in wage levels; it would introduce a competitor in the market for what the imperialist companies consider their preserves. All that is built is railways and ports to whip the produce away from the workers who produce it, fine hotels, perhaps, for the European tourists, big houses for the colonial administrators, and, most important, magnificent prisons.

The colonial administrators, whose incomes are tens of times higher than those of the colonial people they rule, consider themselves miles above their poor, probably illiterate, hungry and sick, subjects. Companies like Tate and Lyle, that reap the super profits out of the cheap labour of the colonial peoples – the same Tate and Lyle that, if you remember, spent some of these profits conducting a vicious campaign against nationalisation – are only too happy to see this superiority complex immigrating into Britain in the first-class cabins of the crowded immigrant boats and spread its poison on arrival here. “Divide and rule “ has been the guiding policy of imperialism in the colonies. How well will it flourish in Britain?

Divide and Rule

The Tories foster the idea lovingly. Witness the statement of a Tory MP, Hopkinson, quite early on in the West Indian immigration: “... the Government ... was contemplating a committee to consider whether it was advisable to control the entry into Britain of coloured holders of British passports.” Note the emphasis on “coloured.” There is an annual immigration from Ireland of 45,000, scores of thousands of Australians, New Zealanders, white South Africans and others, but no mention is made of restricting their movement (except, in isolated instances, for the Irish) only the coloured workers are singled out.

More recently (February 15, 1956) the Ministry of Labour said, quite uncritically, that “ a few firms had felt it as well to maintain a balance between the number of white and coloured workers.” Industrial management heartily endorses these “divide and rule” policies. Witness this shameful statement from the personnel officer of a large engineering firm (June, 1956): “For the time being at least there should be some restrictions imposed upon the number of non-Europeans and for that matter Irishmen too, seeking work here. It is pretty evident that before the year is out there will be quite a lot of our own people looking for work. Naturally, they will feel that they have a greater right to work than a West Indian or an Irishman, and in any case most managements will sooner employ a local man who nine times out of ten has some industrial experience.”

In Lancashire employment exchanges are marking some firms NC (No Colour) because they refuse to take coloured workers.

Policemen and Landlords

A Birmingham Mail (November 10, 1956) headline ran: “Maternity Wards Full – Coloured Influx Blamed.”

The greatest insult to coloured immigrants in Birmingham was the appointment as Liason Officer for Coloured People in the town of a former detective inspector in the Kenya police] Just the man to keep race relations sufficiently in friction to he useful if the bosses should need it as a hammer blow against the workers.

The poison has seeped well down to the middle class. As very few coloured workers qualify for council housing for lack of residential or other qualifications, they have to rely almost entirely on private landlords who exact exorbitant rents for grossly inferior accommodation.

Birmingham Mail (September 17, 1955) reported the case of 34 West Indians who were evacuated from one house due to fire. Each of them was paying one guinea per week to live and sleep, some four in one room, with no fire precaution. A Social Worker in Birmingham found cases of three married couples in one room, in some houses 40 or 50 people. The same person reported a case in which one landlord collected £500 a week from 12 houses. It is quite common for landlords to charge vastly different rents for white and coloured people for exactly the same accommodation. In spite of this explanation, however, a News Chronicle (June 6, 1956) correspondent reported that only about 1 landlady in 5 would take coloured lodgers – about 1 in 6 admitted to strong colour prejudice, while the majority said they had no colour bar themselves but thought neighbours would object.

A Spotty Record

One would have hoped that the working class would have stood out solidly against this effort by their very own exploiters to split their ranks. Unfortunately it cannot be said that its ranks are firmly closed on this issue. Trade unionists may remember the disgraceful strike of West Bromley bus crews in 1955 over the employment of one single coloured worker (an Indian). In the same year the Transport and General Workers Union in Nottingham threatened to strike if coloured conductors were promoted to be drivers before every white conductor had been given the chance (They were later won over to a different viewpoint). Unrest among Birmingham transport workers led to a plebiscite on the employment of coloured workers. (The majority were against discrimination, but the TGWU did impose a 10 per cent restriction on coloured labour in city transport.) At a conference of officials from leading unions in December 1954 a prominent Midland trade union official proposed that in case of unemployment, coloured workers should go first and in promotion white workers should have preference. (No seconder could be found.)

A Militant Lead

From the last fact it is clear that an attitude of discrimination is by no means universal in the trade unions. Many unions, after discussing the question, have passed resolutions against any discrimination by race, colour or creed with regard to employment, promotion and firing (if redundancy occurs).

Birmingham City Council in April 1955 passed a unanimous resolution that all Corporation posts, including town clerkship, should be open to any creed and colour. The Birmingham Trades Council resolved by an overwhelming majority to oppose the restriction of immigration (February 956).

Typical of many statements is that of a shop stewards’ committee of a large metal works. On the suggestion of the management to employ coloured labour, the committee replied:

“We have no colour bar like some misguided organizations. All workers equal terms and provided our coloured friends join the appropriate unions, work for the rate for the job and obey the rules, they will receive the same consideration as anyone else.”

Whatever other factors enter into colour discriminations – a primitive and ignorant antagonism to foreigners of any sort, small town parochialism, a white superiority complex, among others – undoubtedly the main factor among workers is their fear for their jobs, the feeling taken up and fostered most carefully by the bosses. This extends not only to coloured labour but to that of any immigrant community. Witness the attitude of the miners to Italian labour, and now – after wordy support for their magnificent struggle against Russian oppression, to the Hungarians.

A complicating factor with coloured immigrants – unlike the Italians and Hungarians – is that they have not got strong roots in trade union organisation. According to a Gallup poll taken in 1955 30 per cent of West Indians employed in Britain were in trade unions. For the whole coloured population the figure is probably slightly under this.

In this respect, instead of decrying the fact, militant workers should first of all feel a strong sense of solidarity with their colonial brothers, who are constantly and with great self-sacrifice trying to form or strengthen the trade unions in their home countries, under the greatest pressure of Imperialism.

Almost invariably the most militant trade unionists are clapped into gaol and held there without ever coming to trial, for instance, 200 trade unionists in Singapore last October, 63 sugar estate workers pickets in St. Vincent in the West Indies, all the top officials of the Cyprus Workers Confederation and a group of Cypriot-Turk trade unionists, a number of trade union leaders in Northern Rhodesia, nearly all leaders in Kenya, and so on. Trade unions are frequently banned, for instance in Southern Rhodesia, except for a railway union. Strikes are even more frequently banned, for instance, for the African Mineworkers’ Union in Northern Rhodesia, for all African workers in Southern Rhodesia, for all Cypriot unions, etc. Police interference and many other means are used to suppress trade union activities.

The Socialist Answer

Draw the colonial workers who are unorganised into the trade union ranks, and with the antagonism to exploitation that they drew in with their mother’s milk in their home countries they will readily and quickly prove to be loyal members of their unions. The AEU in Birmingham did well by issuing a leaflet directed to coloured immigrants pointing out the advantages of belonging the union, and in the Standard and BMC strikes the coloured workers proved their loyalty quite as well as the other workers, some cases coming out 100 per cent where the rest of the shop was not solid.

If there should be large-scale unemployment, a few thousand coloured workers would not make the slightest difference to the prevailing misery. In the early ’thirties there were no coloured workers to speak of in Britain. Unemployment then embraced three million British workers.

Today, except for a few patches, there is full employment, with 22 million at work. There are 150,000 coloured immigrants in Britain, that is, one in 333 of the population or one in 146 of the workers. (Incidentally, the annual emigration from Britain is 60–100,000 every year, which more than makes up for the immigration.) In full employment, if the working class is united, extra organised workers can only add to working class strength.

To sum up, if coloured workers are made welcome, persuaded of the advantages of trade unionism, which is easily done, are given equal conditions of promotion, get the rate for the job and are treated equally in case of redundancy, they cannot but strengthen the working class struggle by helping to put up a united front to the bosses’ attempts to divide and rule.

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