This collaboration is particular pleasing for the following reasons:
- It establishes the connection between our current labour realities, particularly the thrust to modernize and promote the development of our labour force and the environment in which they operate, and the historic atrocities of the labour environment in which our ancestors suffered some of the worst inhumanities ever experienced by any people;
- It provides another opportunity to engage Jamaicans from all walks of life in the Reparations discussions as, in this case, the NCR connects with the historically successful trade union movement with its mantra to ensure better working conditions for all;
- Thirdly, it provides a moment to recognize the work carried out by one of the movement’s great labour activists, the Most Honourable Hugh Lawson Shearer, whose contribution is celebrated in the name of the Institute. Hugh Shearer, like so many other labour activists, understood their role as part of the process of repairing the oppressive systems under which our people historically worked, replacing it with work realities and ethics anchored in decent work and respect for those who laboured.
This Forum comes on the tail of our very successful taking of the Reparations discussion to the young people across Jamaica as part of the CARICOM/Jamaica Reparations Youth Forum, Baton Relay and Rally. Again, I want to thank all the students and young people of the various high schools, colleges and universities, including youth at risk and employed youth, for their support of the Reparations cause which they demonstrated so powerfully through their involvement in this project. I also want to thank all those who worked so hard to implement this project.
Today, we make another large step in the process of engagement of the wider Jamaican population, a very important objective of the National Council on Reparations. Today, we focus on our workforce systems and environments and the creation of decent work programmes and ethics which recognize the dignity and contribution of everyone.
It is significant that this Public Forum speaks to ‘Back Pay’. This is not to be seen as ‘pay back’, which is a very different concept of Reparation, in which the oppressed may carry out recriminatory, even vigilante-style, justice against their oppressors. ‘Pay back’ often promotes a tit-for-tat kind of violent retribution that has no place in positive social engineering. We are not about ‘Tit for Tat’, we are about giving us what is owe to us.
‘Back Pay’, rather, speaks to the long-standing debt owed to the labour force and which must be paid as part of the respectful negotiation of reparatory justice. ‘Back Pay’ is measured or calculated by computing the accumulated amount owed by using the established rates of remuneration for work done. It often also includes responses to various issues that may have impacted the debtor. This may include acknowledgement and measurement of psychological and socio-cultural damages that may have affected the labourer over the period and which may still impact negatively current and future activities of the workforce. This may also include an assessment of the loss of income that may also accrue in the present as a result of impacts from the former labour situation.
This is the basis of our responsibility through our Reparations agenda to re-engage discussions with the British and Spanish former colonial masters with regard to the ‘back pay’ owed to the then labour force, our ancestors, over the period of the exploitation of their labour. After all, in every economic system the role and calculated value of the labour force (the most important ingredients of economic activity) is easily and generally calculated in the computation of economic revenues. The unparalleled contribution to the success of the British and Spanish economies by the labour force forcibly acquired and brutally treated over the period of slavery and colonial oppression can and must be costed as part of these discussions.
Additionally, our knowledge of history reminds us that such a calculation is possible and occurred in 1833 when, as part of the computation of reparations to the planters (the then ‘owners’ of the labour force deemed then as property), a sum of Twenty Million Pounds was determined as an appropriate amount to cover the expected loss of that labour force. Of course, we must bear in mind as we negotiate ‘back pay’ on their behalf, that that amount of money was calculated on an economic basis alone and did not include the social, cultural and psychological damages to the persona of each worker and, subsequently their children and grandchildren, from the inhumane treatment meted out to them.
Even as the system of slavery has been designated as a crime against humanity, it must now be tested in international fora, under modern enlightened systems of global governance and justice, that the treatment to those who were enslaved must be seen as criminal negligence and injustice and bear monetary or other in-kind calculations of due reparations. Additionally, the real and consequential impact on our national economy and society today must be included in the causal relationships that must form a part of our calculation of the ‘back pay’ owed to us. These include:
- a growing national debt
- the unequal partnerships which order and determine the constructs of world trade and which very often are all stacked up against us
- the reality of persistent and even chronic poverty
- the social and cultural scars that bear their mark on the psyche of the country, and which manifest in many social stigmatization such as bleaching, violence and crime, and other forms of unhealthy social behaviours
- the inability of our national economy to respond to the shocks that often impact the economic landscape such as after natural disasters.
- the inability of government to service the education, health, mental and social needs of the population.
The discussion on ‘Back Pay’ with respect to the European powers that controlled our countries during the past period of enslavement and colonial exploitation is therefore very relevant to our thrust for Reparations. This is because it underscores the connection between our past realities and the experiences of our present day shortcomings. This is particularly relevant to those who would suggest that slavery is a thing of the past which happened long ago and has no bearing on the present. It is relevant to those who would suggest that we should get over it and move on, because they are largely unaware that our efforts to move on usually collide with the residues that continue among us from our former enslavement.
Finally, ‘Back Pay’ is based on the very important reality of something owed, a debt to be paid. As such, it is not charity. It is not the grandchildren of the former enslaved begging for development support from the former enslavers. Rather, it is an honest and relevant position, enshrined in international law, by which those enslaved or oppressed in the past, or their grandchildren, and who were not suitably or sufficiently remunerated for their past activities, may legally and rightfully claim in the present ‘back pay’ for themselves or their grandchildren, no matter how long it takes. And we have learnt only recently by the British Treasury that the compensation paid out as reparation to the planters in 1834 was only finally re-paid in 2015.
Jamaica continues to stand alongside the other CARICOM territories in active preparation of our ‘back pay’ claims. Our ancestors used their creative imagination to stage revolutions and wars that led to their emancipation. Our task is to play our part in sustaining their demand for ‘back pay’. Many died because they made their justifiable demand for back pay. Such was the case of Sam Sharpe and his followers who probably started the trade union movement in Jamaica by conducting their serious strike action in December 1831. For this, Sam Sharpe and a host of his followers were killed.
Franz Fanon, that great thinker of Martinique, asserts in his book The Wretched of the Earth”: “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it”. Today, as my generation continues to lay the groundwork for what must happen in the negotiation and acquisition of the ‘back pay’ that our ancestors would demand, we must say to the next generation: “You must fulfil, not betray your ancestral mission. Let it be a manifestation of our ancestral pedigree that we the grandchildren of our former enslaved ancestors have been able to fulfil one of the greatest responsibilities of our age: the restoration of the full dignity and integrity of our ancestors through successful negotiation of the ‘back pay’ owed to them.
In this resolve there is no room for weakened spirit. It is NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER!