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West Africa (Labour Relations)

Volume 484: debated on Friday 2 March 1951

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Kenneth Robinson.]

4.11 p.m.

I should be obliged to the right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) if he would wait a moment, because I was just going to say that if the Report which I hold in my hand had referred to any department of public enterprise, we should have had him bobbing up and down at the Despatch Box talking about the Marampa scandal. As I say, I have here a copy of the report of the Board of Inquiry set up by the Governor of Sierra Leone to inquire into the circumstances of the stoppages of work at the works of the Sierra Leone Development Co., Ltd., on 2nd, 3rd and 4th October, 1950, at Marampa. But as my purpose this afternoon is not to recriminate about the past, but rather to put forward some constructive suggestions for the future, I have not described the subject matter of this Adjournment debate as the "Marampa Scandal," but rather as "Labour Relations in West Africa." which I think we might consider.

I am mentioned by name in this Report because of the fortuitous circumstance that I was making a two-day visit to a personal friend of mine who is the District Commissioner of the area concerned, and who took me to see the Marampa iron mine, as being the most interesting object of this district. This quite fortuitous circumstance resulted in the fact that the District Commissioner got to know about the impending disturbance three days before it broke out instead of half a day after it broke out, as was the intention of the directors of the company concerned.

The only points in this Report which I can confirm from my personal evidence are (1) that the company was indeed concerned to make out to everybody, including myself, that the impending quarrel was due entirely to a misunderstanding between the workers and their own trade union leaders and that there was no quarrel between the workers and the company, and (2) that they took a very dim view about the Commissioner of Labour and were anxious that he should be kept away as long as possible. Apart from that, I have to rely upon this Report, a copy of which is in the Library.

I want to make it quite clear that all my information goes to show that since these events, and since this Report came out, this particular company has been very much more reasonable, co-operative and friendly than it was before, and, for this reason, and also for the reason that I had a large tooth pulled out yesterday, I want to keep any acrimonious tone out of my voice and to refer to the matter in a quiet and orderly way. Nevertheless, I think we should take a look at some of the incidents in this Report to see what lessons can be drawn from them for the future.

The Report is not the work of a Royal Commission. Those who drafted it did not have the resources which are available to a Royal Commission, and, therefore, I have no doubt that on isolated points of fact or of interpretation it would be possible for someone to come along and argue that a view different from that expressed in the Report might reasonably be taken. But what I want to present to the House does not arise from any particular point, but from the reading of the Report as a whole.

It has been drawn up by three men. Mr. Marke, an African lawyer and a member of the Legislative Council is chairman, Mr. H. J. Raynor, a trade union adviser in the labour Department, and Mr. T. P. Savage, a business manager of the Sierre Leone Coaling Company, who came on leave to this country the day before yesterday. I think, Mr. Speaker, that you would have to put the Question "That strangers do now withdraw" if I were to indicate where he is at the moment.

These three men wrote a report after hearing the evidence and seeing the people concerned, and their conclusion stands out that this disturbance was not caused by any misunderstanding between the workers and the trade union leaders. On the contrary, it was the result of the feelings of utter frustration that boiled up in the workers as the result of the completely wrong attitude which had been taken by the Company.

Let us look at one or two details. The district commissioner concerned, and Mr. Siaka Stevens, the trade union organiser to whose excellent work I shall later refer, had, on 3rd October, persuaded the men to calm down and listen to reason. It was then suggested that the general manager should come and speak to a mass meeting of the workers. The Report states that he refused to do so, giving his reasons, one of which was, that he had been stoned on the previous day by the workers. It continues by stating that the deputy manager, who was present, said, and here I quote:
"that if troops were brought on the scene and flogged the strikers, there would be no more strikes for the next 10 years."
I feel that in 1950 that sort of thing will not quite do.

The Report contains complaints of the workers under many different heads. One complaint was that there had been a year's delay in implementing a wage declaration under a Government order, of which the Report says:
"We feel that if the Public Notice No. 59 of 1949 laid down the wages the Company was to pay the workers as from the 1st September, 1949, the Company was not discharging its duty to the Wages Board Ordinance by beginning to make such payments a year afterwards."
Another complaint was that the daily task to be fulfilled by each worker had been increased and something was said about this being due to mechanisation. The Report says:
"The Company, we feel, was guilty of a breach of faith in not having disclosed to the Board their intention of introducing mechanisation into the mines. We feel very much inclined to accept the view of the workers who alleged that the tasks were universal not because of the introduction of mechanisation, but in order to keep unimpaired the proportion existing between daily wages and daily tasks."
Then there was the question of bringing water to the African workers, when drinking water was already supplied to the Europeans. On this point, the Report says:
"We unhesitatedly agree that this discrimination was unfortunate and unneccessary as there was evidence of ample supply of water which a small measure of due consideration for others should have made available to the workers."
Then there was a question of wells being sited next the latrines. That has been put right; but it ought not to need a disturbance and the stoning of a general manager in order to get it realised that latrines should not be put next to wells.

Another complaint was that the workers had been kept waiting three hours to draw their wages; standing outdoors, often in the African rain. There has also been a dispute as to whether they were to have their pay in envelopes or counted out into their hands. But surely there ought either to be more pay clerks or shelters provided to comply with the ordinary considerations of humanity, as, indeed, the Report itself suggests. The Report says. "Ordinary considerations of humanity."

I forbear to quote extracts from the Report dealing with this Company's attitude towards the trade unions and the labour department of the Colony, because it is precisely under these heads that a very remarkable and welcome improvement has taken place. The points are dealt with in the Report in such language as shows that those who wrote them clearly intended that no one should be in any doubt as to what were their views on this matter.

The general conclusion of the Report is expressed in following words:
"The policy of the Company in regard to these matters—the pay system—the lack of weather equipment—discrimination in the supply of good drinking water—rent charged for the Company's premises and the suspension without pay of the men—the type of medical facilities offered to the men, draw us irresistibly to the conclusion that the Company did not manifest such interest in the men as may normally he expected."
What consequences follow from that?

Can my hon. Friend say whether this is a British company? Can he say whether they are British directors? If so, will he give us their names?

If all the things I am describing were continuing I would agree that the names should be given, but I hope that the House will believe that I have no special animosity towards this Company, except for my belief as a Socialist that all such companies should be owned by the people of Sierra Leone. As a result of these occurrences this company has introduced many improvements. I am much more concerned with the general lessons we can draw, rather than to pursue vendettas against particular people who are not very different from many others.

One of the general conclusions that can be drawn is the very great importance of strengthening trade union organisation in this territory, indeed in all our Colonies, so that such grievances as this are not allowed to boil up to frustration point with the result that there is an explosion and peoples houses are burnt, but that the grievances can be settled in the ordinary way. I appreciate that this is not an easy matter. It is not altogether easy to find good, reliable trade union organisers. We are lucky in the case of Sierra Leone in having in Mr. Stevens, one of the best men in West Africa, of whom the report says:
"We commend him for his wise and masterly handling of the situation in getting the men back to work before the position deteriorated into further acts of violence."
That gives us very great pleasure to read.

A larger conclusion which I want to offer is that there would be something to be said at this time for sending out a carefully selected mission or group of people to look at this and other similar companies doing similar work in the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and in the other Colonies. I say that because how otherwise do we know that other companies are not adopting a similar practice and that a similar outburst is not being fomented, where perhaps there are not trade union leaders of the same character and wisdom as the trade union leader in this case?

It may be too wide a generalisation to say it, but people ought not to make profits and Communists at the same time. It may be an overstatement, because it is unlikely that any of these people were turned into signed up members of the Communist Party. The point is, however, that lack of consideration to the people concerned creates the sort of dissatisfaction out of which Communism arises. It would be quite a good thing to send out a commission, which, of course, should include some members whose political views coincide with hon. Members on the other side of the House. No doubt they would be listened to by the business managers of these privately owned mining companies, as they will undoubtedly remain until such time as they are nationalised. That is all I wanted to say, and I hope that the practical suggestion that I have put forward will be taken note of.

4.25 p.m.

I am sure that the House will agree with me that the report from which the hon. Member for Gravesend (Sir R. Acland) read has certain similarities to the Report of the Fitzgerald Commission. At the time of the Enugu riots there was no difficulty, so far as we were concerned, in knowing who were the people responsible for the outcome of these sort of conditions in Enugu. The people responsible are hon. Members on the other side of the House and the Government generally. It is important when we are criticising—and rightly criticising—a private enterprise organisation of this sort that we should realise that the same sort of lack of understanding of the basic needs of industrial relations in Western Africa were in evidence in a Government-owned mine at Enugu, and led to even greater and more disastrous riots than the one to which the hon. Baronet has referred.

We on this side of the House join with the hon. Baronet in deploring any evidence of a low standard of industrial relations, whether it be in a Government owned enterprise or in a privately-owned enterprise. It seems to me that the evidence which the hon. Member read out showed that it was not only the company which was at fault—and I accept the evidence of the Commission, as he does —but that the Government were very gravely at fault; that the Colonial Office, responsible for the Government policy, was equally at fault in not ensuring that the ordinance dealing with wages, which he referred to, was carried into effect straight away by the company; and by not ensuring that the good neighbour code which the Sierra Leone Government have issued was not properly followed by the company concerned.

My conclusion about the use of labour relations did not originate from the lack of a trade union organisation, but from the failure of the Colonial Governments to implement their own labour organisation. It will be remembered that in 1937 the first steps were taken to ensure that a proper labour organisation was set up in the various Colonies and that since that time the Colonies have followed the model labour ordinances which have been issued by the Government. It has struck me that the reason for these failures is not lack of trade union organisation, because it is not necessarily a fact that trade unionism as we know it in Britain, and which has made a great contribution to our industrial life, is equally applicable to Africa. I quote from the Fitzgerald Report:
"Many experienced and progressive African administrators considered the unsophisticated Africa was not yet ready for the introduction of…trade unionism, which has done so much to advance the prosperity and greatness of Britain. They predict that, paradoxical though it may seem, trade unionism following slavishly the English model might lead to the exploitation of the workers by unworthy leaders."
That is exactly what happened in Enugu. It could have been prevented if, instead of trying to transplant our admirable trade union traditions from this country into Africa, we had realised that the background of the African industrial problem was very different from ours, and that it should be dealt with by machinery built up by the Government for negotiation and arbitration, and in seeing that the labour ordinances are current in the Colonies. While I agree with the hon. Member on the general principle of the importance of industrial relations, I dissent from all the conclusions which he has drawn.

4.30 p.m.

I am sorry that 'the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport) has raised the question of Enugu where the circumstances were quite different. If he had read closely the Report from which my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Sir. R. Acland) quoted, he would have forgotten all about the Fitzgerald Report. There is full realisation at the Colonial Office that trade unionism in the Colonies is in its infancy and that different methods have to be employed in building up the trade union movement there, and we watch this very closely.

Time has gone on very quickly and I should like to deal straight away with the situation as the Colonial Office sees it. This matter must be of great concern to all of us who feel that we ought to have the welfare and progress of the colonial peoples at heart. I am very much obliged to my hon. Friend for having given me the opportunity to reiterate what my right hon. Friend has said on many occasions, that in our work for the economic and social advancement of the Colonial Territories we regard it as of the highest importance that there should be fair remuneration of the worker, good conditions of employment and satisfactory relations in industry. Without those things, economic and social progress will be illusory.

Let us deal with the actual situation. I am glad to be able to inform the House —I should like to do so at the beginning of my reply—that a satisfactory settlement has been arrived at in Sierra Leone between the workers and the Marampa Iron Mines Company on most of the matters discussed in the Report to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention. I understand that the company has intimated its willingness to continue discussions on the one or two points which are still outstanding, and the Governor has reported that there is every prospect of the good relations being established between the company and the workers' trade union.

In view of the satisfactory developments since the Report was made—which have been achieved through the normal and proper processes of negotiations between the company and the union—I feel it is better for me not to dwell on particular aspects of the Report but rather to deal with the wider issues. I feel very strongly that it is not our job to reopen questions which have already been satisfactorily settled in Sierra Leone itself and it would be a pity if anything said at this distance were to prejudice the settlement locally of the issues which remain outstanding.

I will, however, give the House the background of the Report so that the whole matter can be seen in its proper perspective. A stoppage of work occurred at the mine on 2nd October, and it was accompanied by some minor disturbances. The stoppage was unofficial and it occurred without the knowledge or sanction of the executive of the Sierra Leone Mineworkers Union, which covers three widely separated mining undertakings in the territory, and in a branch of which the miners at Marampa are organised. The general secretary of the union arrived there on 3rd October, and at a meeting with the men on 4th October he persuaded them to return to work the following day.

The causes of the stoppage were not immediately apparent, though there seems to have been general unrest among the workers about the conditions of work and also some dissatisfaction about wage rates. A number of detailed complaints were brought to light at a meeting on 6th October between the management and the general secretary of the Union, which was arranged and presided over by the Commissioner of Labour. At this meeting both sides agreed to the appointment of a board of inquiry under the local Trades Disputes Ordinance. This was announced by the general secretary to the workers at a mass meeting on the following day, and the men unanimously agreed to continue work, the stoppage actually lasting three days.

In appointing the board the Acting Governor made it plain that it was intended to conduct a fact-finding inquiry into the reasons for the stoppage, and that any action taken on the report of the board would be a matter for the wages board and other negotiating machinery for the settlement of disputes already set up and accepted by both sides of industry. I should explain that a statutory wages board is organised on a tripartite basis on the lines of a wages council in this country. Here is one example of where we can use good trade union methods to overcome certain situations. This has existed in the mining industry in Sierre Leone for the last five years, so it is not a new thing.

The Report of the board was presented towards the end of December, and subsequent negotiations on the matters contained in it have produced the satisfactory results to which I have referred. In addition, at a recent meeting of the wages board increases of pay to all workers were agreed on. It is significant that the agreement on these wage increases was arrived at without any need for intervention by the independent members of the board. This indicates the effectiveness of the established machinery and the good relations which have been restored, I do not want to dwell on the Report in detail, for hon. Members can see a copy of it in the Library, but in view of the wider arguments which my hon. Friend has drawn from it, I will make one general comment. The Report is frankly critical of the company. It may be, however, that the company have only themselves to blame if they appear to the board in a worse light than they should have done. I understand that while making clear their wish and intention to clear up some of the outstanding issues which have caused dissatisfaction, they have since indicated to the Governor that they cannot accept that the report gives an accurate impression of the state of affairs at Marampa before the strike.

The House should know also that on receiving the Report the company immediately sent two directors from London whose attitude in the negotiations has been extremely good, and has contributed in no small measure to the early and speedy progress that has been made in the discussions. It would not be right to leave the impression that the company have been entirely neglectful of the welfare and conditions of their labour; indeed, they have shown a liberal approach in recent talks with the union.

With regard to the suggestion of my hon. Friend of a commission or a mission going out, frankly, if one wants to look for trouble, one can find it in this country without looking for difficulties in the colonial field.

I am not sure that a commission or mission would be a good thing in view of all the machinery, and to allow this single Report to cast suspicion on employers generally throughout West Africa would do little justice to those companies who recognise and fulfil their responsibilities to the African workers. We have to be fair and objective in this. I am as good a trade unionist as anyone in this House or in this country. I should like to assure my hon. Friend that there is no disposition on the part of Colonial Governors or in the Colonial Office here to overlook the possible wider implica- tions of an incident of this kind. Mr. Parry, who is for ever travelling all over the Colonies doing an extremely good job, and who is one of the Secretary of State's assistant labour advisers, has returned recently from a month's visit to Sierra Leone. He went at the request of the Government for consultations on labour relations generally in the territory. He, also attended as an observer with the Local Commissioner of Labour in talks between the union and the company which I have described.

Sierra Leone has, in fact, an admirable record in industrial relations and, in particular, in the development of organised machinery for settling industrial disputes. Almost all industrial and commercial workers in the Territory come within the scope of the wages board or joint industrial council. The large degree of cooperation and understanding between employers and organised labour has resulted over the last few years in considerable improvement in wages, hours of work and conditions of employment. After his visit Mr. Parry takes the view that there is no call for a basic change in the existing machinery which has kept the Territory almost completely free from industrial unrest in recent years.

The machinery must be operated in the proper way, however, and in the right spirit of co-operation. That is clearly the major lesson to be drawn from this matter. I should like to pay tribute to the General Secretary of the Marampa Mine Workers' Union and to say that not only have employers responsibility to their employees and employees have responsibility to their employer, but, more particularly, employees have a responsibility to their organised trade unions. It is this point that has created some of the troubles. We must press upon the men the need to take an active interest in their organisations.

The Question having been proposed after Four o'Clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Nineteen Minutes to Five o'Clock.