My fellow Jamaicans:
On this Labour Day, when we are reminded to “Lend a hand…build our Land”, I greet you in the name of our ancestors who not only gave the proverbial hand but some of whom, literally gave their very lives to blaze a path for us.
May 23 not only reminds us of the time when workers at the Kingston Waterfront joined workers in other parts of the island to demand better wages and working conditions, but it also reminds us of an earlier struggle: That day of infamy on May 23,1832, when the Right Excellent Sam Sharpe was hanged at the age of 31 for his struggle for emancipation.
It has been one united struggle for justice and human dignity; one struggle by and on behalf of the vulnerable, whom we today in 2013 still remember and still seek to protect.
As the Right Excellent Marcus Mosiah Garvey said, “Liberate the minds of men, and you will liberate the bodies of men.”
The minds of our ancestors who waged that ceaseless struggle for our human rights, justice and dignity were lit with the torch of freedom, which has been passed to our generation.
We must keep that torch burning bright, never retreating from our commitment to advance the interests of the defenseless and the marginalized.
It was that commitment, burnished in the hearts of our predecessors in the struggle, which ignited their vision of a better future.
I think of Robert Rumble, a small farmer who had returned from Cuba and who, in 1937, formed an organization called the Poor Man’s Improvement and Land Settlement Association.
In March, 1938, the association boasted a membership of 800 and on April 23 he addressed a petition to the Governor as follows : “We are the sons of slaves who have been paying rent to landlords for fully many decades. We want better wages, we have been exploited for years. We want a minimum wage. We want freedom in this one hundredth year of our Emancipation. We are still economic slaves…”
Rumble agitated for land for the peasants and for better wages for agricultural workers.
The work of people like Rumble, The Right Excellent Sir Alexander Bustamante, The Right Excellent Norman Manley, St. William Grant, AGS Coombs, Rastafarian Leader – Leonard Howell and Aggie Bernard, all paved the way for us today.
They were joined by thousands of others who fought for their rights in every parish in this country and who in unison cried out for justice.
They exemplified the words of Marcus Mosiah Garvey who said, “Men who are in earnest are not afraid of consequences”.
Those men and women were not afraid of the consequences.
They knew their cause was just, as Martin Luther King Junior said, “the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice”.
And as Richard Hart wrote in his book on Labour Rebellions in the 1930s, by the end of June, 1938, calm had returned after islandwide protests.
I quote: “A number of factors had contributed to this, perhaps the most important had been the launching by Bustamante of a trade union and assurances from him and the much respected barrister N. W. Manley that the workers would receive proper representation. The announcement on June 14 that a Royal commission would be arriving shortly to investigate conditions had undoubtedly created expectations that improvements would be coming.
On June 28 Acting Governor Wooley had announced that two loans would be raised to finance land settlements and other infrastructural developments.”
The struggles of the workers had borne fruit, and injustice had to yield to human dignity. That struggle continues today.
We must continue to be vigilant to protect hard-won rights.
Today, we have to recapture that same spirit of unity and active community involvement and volunteerism which gripped the generation of the 1930s and before.
We have to be our brother’s and sister’s keeper. We have to care about what happens to our neighbour, especially when that neighbour is weak and vulnerable.
We must always remember to protect the weak lest we perish.
We must never forget Jesus’ words,“truly I tell you whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
The concept of living for me, myself and I is foreign to our culture.
That is not us. We are a communal people. We are a people who know that it takes a village to raise a child. We live in a community. That is why we mark Labour Day by working in our communities and being involved in various voluntary projects.
Our National Labour Day project is the St Mary Infirmary in Port Maria. There, citizens will be refurbishing, replanting and replacing. Young people will be there to groom and entertain residents, bringing cheer to them.
This culture of caring which we are highlighting on this Labour Day with its focus on the vulnerable must be nurtured as we build a more just society.
The reason we work to fix the macro economy is to be able to raise the living standards of our people and provide a better quality of life for all.
This year we emphasize the importance of productivity in reducing the nation’s economic vulnerability.
If we are not more productive as a people; if we don’t give a fair day’s work for a fair days pay; if we don’t commit to do our very best and to produce at international standards, then we would be condemning future generations to economic failure. Successfully tackling our debt burden is critical to protecting the vulnerable.
We salute our workers who have made many sacrifices for the nation. We salute, in particular, public sector workers who have, in the national interest, foregone wage increases.
Your sacrifice has been an important contribution for laying the foundation for a sustainable future.
On this Labour Day as we remember those who made their own sacrifices for us, let us think of what we will pass on to future generations, while we protect the vulnerable among us.
Put work into Labour Day. Put Love into Labour Day.
Let’s put our whole hearts into building Jamaica, land we love.
God bless all of you.