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.
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 the Belize 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.
(Marcia Rodriguez/Atlantic Bank)
Belize Labor Day Holiday: 5 Facts you should know
May 1st of every year marks a very important day for us Belizeans, especially for the working class; Belize Labor Day Holiday! This Belize holiday is a public and bank holiday that we enjoy as a day of rest from work, and as gratitude for all our hard work. However, many are unaware what we Belizeans had to go through to be able to enjoy such treat in this jewel of our country.
1. In the 18th century the British tried to force the Maya people to work for them.
The Mayan people were mostly forest dwellers, hunters and worked on their own agriculture crops mainly for trade. They refused to work for the British in the logging of Mahogany. As a result the British had to settle by purchasing African slaves then eventually obtained workers from Belize (at that time known as British Honduras). Most of these workers couldn’t afford a land to work on their own so that they can take care of their family therefore had to work on logging with the British foresters.
2. In 1836 Mahogany workers acquired very low wages.
The employers cared less about employees welfare, paid them merely an average of $12 – $15 per month plus rations (seven quarts of flour and four pounds of pork a week). They had to sign contracts for specific periods of time and employees had to pay the employer if they wanted extra goods at high prices; they also had to pay the employer if they were sick, late to work or for being “lazy”. All this caused employers and workers to be in conflict with each other for many years.
3. In 1852 and 1885 “Masters and Servants” laws were passed out.
These laws were very ruthless to the employee, which allowed the employer to basically have all rights over their workers. Workers could be sent to serve jail time should they miss a day of work, didn’t finish the job, or for being disobedient. Although the working class protested, fought and took this matter to the Governor nothing was done.
4. The great Depression in 1929
A major economic crisis hit North America, Europe and other industrialized countries of the world. This crisis reached as far as the Country of Belize (British Honduras) affecting the decline of Mahogany. Following that event another major crisis hit in 1931 in the form of a hurricane leaving the working class in a worst shape and a lot of people close to starvation.
5. Antonio Soberanis pursuit for poverty relief, more jobs and minimum wages.
After seeing major unemployment and poor wages in February 1934 a group called the “Unemployed Brigade” was established and they fought for better labor laws and employment. The group was short lived when the leader decided to resign. Antonio Soberanis, one of the demonstrators thought that the brigade leader was a coward and shouldn’t give up. That is when he declared that he rather be “a dead hero than a living coward”. Together with his colleagues he formed a group called the Labor and Unemployed Association (LUA). They demanded poverty relief, more jobs and minimum wage.
We have come a long way from slavery and poor laws! Today the people of Belize have the right to be part of a union and enjoy great welfare and Labor laws that protect both the employer and the employee. Many employers are also assisting their workers with life and health insurance. We have good minimum wages and excellent pay scales. We are now really lucky to be living in an amazing country. Belize is a true Jewel!
You may know the name Antonio Soberanis. He’s remembered in Belizean History as one of the first Belizean nationalists whose love of country led him to become Belize’s first and fiercest labour activist. His labor movement which started in the mid 1930’s paved the way to self-government and Independence in Belize.
But, Soberanis isn’t lionized the same way that the leaders like George Price are. In fact, his legacy is often overlooked, and if you aren’t studying local history, or aren’t a historian, you may know very little about his contributions.
So today, after weeks of preparation, NICH and the Institute of Social and Cultural Research invited the press and his family to his resting place in his home village of Santana, on the Old Northern Highway. It’s being given recognition as a cultural heritage site by NICH, and our news team was there when it was rededicated.
Daniel Ortiz has that story:
Here at this grave site in Santana Village lies the remains of Antonio Soberanis, one of the great labour leaders in the 1930’s. But, if you didn’t know that, or somebody didn’t point it out to you, you’d probably drive past this part of the Old Northern Highway without giving it a second thought.
So, to ensure that historical significance of such an icon could be pinpointed, NICH and the Institute of Social and Cultural Research rededicated his resting place today with a ceremony.
It’s been restored, and a sign summarizing his importance to Belize’s history, was officially unveiled today.
The NICH authorities made sure to invite his descendants to the ceremony, so that they could witness the state’s commitment to reminding the next generation of the life and legacy of a man they read about in the history books.
The ISCR says that this is part of their effort to identify places of cultural and historical importance
Shari Medina - NICH “Our institution believes in embracing community Heritage by raising awareness and conducting research on people and places of historical importance in Belize.”
And nobody knows how important Soberanis is, as much the historians, and his family
Phylicia Pelayo - Researcher, ISCR "Who was Antonio Soberanis, and why should his story matter to you? Really to understand who he was and where his actions stem from, you have to understand the environment that he came out from in the 1930. So, in the 1930's the Great Depression had shattered the Belizean economy. So, out of these conditions emerged Antonio Soberanis Gomez, who became the voice of the unemployed."
Antonio Soberanis Jr - Son of Antonio Soberanis "My father, Antonio Soberanis G. was the first hero of this country, and he was a sincere hero. I would like to tell somebody a part of my father's history, and a part of his family history before I die."
A part of that history emerged today at the ceremony when the Director of ISCR presented a never before seen photograph of Soberanis back in his heyday.
Nigel Encalada - Director, ISCR "Just as recently as Monday, I was looking for a Catholic priest to dedicate the site, and I eventually found Fr. Mumba who graciously agreed to do it, but in talking to his secretary, I just went there, and I introduced myself, and I told the young lady what we were doing. And, the young lady said, 'But Mr., I've been waiting a long time for somebody from NICH come to this place because I have a picture at home from my grandfather of Antonio Soberanis. What kind of coincidence is that? And so, when she - I picked up the picture this morning, and you see here something that was hidden all these many years in someone's home. And he's the person on your right, and you'll see that he's not a very tall man at all. As a matter of act, when I saw his son coming, I said, but wait, that looks like this man. So, you know, genetics are strong. So, this man was the labour leader that the Colonial authorities was afraid of. Size doesn't matter, so to speak. It's what is in your heart, and in your head. We now have this in our possession, and it will now find its way into our archives. It'll be sent in a copy to the Belize Archives, to NICH, and t the National Heritage Library. So, it is there permanently for future Belizeans to see."
But, while the Historians want to preserve this snapshot, the natural forest around this nation builder’s resting place have been slowly encroaching and covering the monument. You could say that it’s been forgotten except by a chosen few, similar to how Soberanis’ name and legacy isn’t as big a brand name in today’s society like George Price or Philip Goldson.
Timothy Aldana - Grandson of Antonio Soberanis "These things have not been taken care of to the best. But, every so often, we come out here, me personally, I come out here to clean it up, do some chopping around it, and see. But it's only like to keep the mark. Like you guys think, you know, it's just a mark you want to keep remembrance of this person.”
So, that’s where the students of Kings College come in. They will be the caretakers who will maintain its upkeep.
Pedro Reyes - Principal, Kings College "Absolutely, as a school, Kings College is committed to be able to upkeep this heritage site, to be able to somehow instill a certain level of ownership of this site, and we promise to be able to create pride in our students, and the community members along this road."
Soberanis, who was a barber by trade, emerged as one of the early 20th century leaders to challenge the colonial government and agitate for the improvement of wages and working conditions of the laborers in that era. Back then, trade unions, which are now an accepted part of mainstream culture, did not exist at that time.