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Panama Canal Labour

Volume 180: debated on Wednesday 7 August 1907

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I beg to ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies if labourers drafted to the Panama Canal from Jamaica, Barbados, and other West Indian islands have been recruited on the same terms as those from Trinidad; and what assurances as to repatriation were received by the Government of those islands.

The recruiting of labourers in Jamaica for service in Panama is governed by the Emigrants' Protection Laws of the Colony, which provide inter alia for the payment of a deposit by the recruiter to remove all risk of an emigrant having to be repatriated at the cost of the Colony, and make the form of contract subject to the approval of the Governor in Privy Council. So far as the Secretary of State is aware, the canal authorities have not yet come to an agreement with the Colonial Government as to the terms of a contract. In Barbados the Governor has no statutory power to control the general terms of a contract for service in Panama, but the laws of the country provide that every such contract shall contain provision for the repatriation of the labourer at the end of his period of service. The Secretary of State is not aware that any special form of contract for service in Panama has been approved by the Government of any other West Indian Colony except Trinidad; and it must be borne in mind that large numbers of labourers have gone to the isthmus voluntarily and not under contract.

asked whether the Government would not insist that under any contract made these labourers should be repatriated, especially when it was remembered that Panama was not a proper country for settlement either for white or coloured men.

I think the Colonial Government may be relied on to take every step in their power to protect labourers who leave their shores under contract. If they leave voluntarily, of course that is a different matter.

asked whether the right hon. Gentleman would make inquiry into the rate of mortality among the labourers, and whether it was not the fact that those who went from Jamaica practically all died.

MR. CHURCHILL said he had not refreshed his memory on the matter, but he should think that now the construction of the canal was under the direction of the United States Government there-must be a great reduction in the rate of mortality.

asked what would be done in regard to those labourers in whose case the contract could not be enforced.

In that respect we have made a communication through, the Foreign Office as to the statutory conditions imposed by the United States. The communication was only made about three weeks ago and no answer has yet come to hand. I should think we should, have the answer before Parliament rises.