Belize in 1914
Labor Day is a holiday appreciated by so many and yet understood by so few. Each year, we look forward to the well-deserved holiday; however, many Belizeans do not truly understand why it is that Labor day holiday is so significant. On Labor day either the Prime Minister or the Labor Minister gives a formal address live. We also look forward to the different activities that are held by the City and Town Councils, business establishments or family members. Amongst all this, we never really stop to think of how far we have come as a working class people.
If asked, many older folks will be happy to mention the actions of Samuel Haynes, Antonio Soberanis and the Belize Labor Movement. Antonio Soberanis was a model activist who pushed Belizeans to fight for fair wages and lived by the motto that he would rather be “a dead hero than a living coward”. But why was it so necessary for Antonio Soberanis to take such a firm stand? How bad were the labor laws in our country?
It all began in the early 1800s, when the British were looking for workers in the settlement. Many Belizean men were not able to own land and had to resort to logging. For more than a century, workers were paid no more than $15 monthly plus rations (28qts of flour and 16lbs of pork) for their work. In some cases, advance salary was given and paid back immediately upon returning to work. Workers were responsible to pay employers if they were sick, late, lazy or disrespectful and often owed employers money at the end of contracted work which meant having to sign up for another term of work.
In the late 1800s, even stricter penalties became evident. Workers would be imprisoned for not attending work and could even be dragged to the work site if an employer so chooses. In 1894 theBelize dollar devalued and an already small pay became even smaller. The after shocks of The Great Depression and the 1931 Hurricane only made matters worse, resulting in such a high unemployment rate that Belizeans had to survive on boiled rice and breaking stones for 25 cents a day.
In the midst of our labor dilemma, it was Antonio Soberanis who took matters into his own hands and demanded work for the unemployed and higher wages for the employed. This meant protesting, rioting and even being imprisoned when necessary so that the officials would consider crown colony government. His mission spread countrywide and workers across Belize began to fight for their labor rights.
Antonio Soberanis’ efforts were not futile. Many other activists emerged alongside and after him resulting in great achievements for the Belizean labor force. Today, we have the right to be a part of a union; women can be employed in any field of work; minimum wages have increased; social security payments are mandatory; there is a labor department, child labor committees, apprenticeships and other social programs. Some institutions even go as far as to ensure that their employees get insurance (life, medical, dental, vision), allowances and pension benefits.
So the next time Labor Day in Belize comes around, I hope more people remember and understand how far Belizeans have come as a working class people and be proud of the struggles and achievements of our labor force.