Reconciling Trade Unionism with Decolonisation in the Global South

Gareth Curless

Lim Chin Siong, a leading labor leader in Singapore from the late 1950s to early 1960s.
Lim Chin Siong, a leading labour leader in Singapore from the late 1950s to early 1960s.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of ‘Operation Coldstore’, when in 1963 Singapore’s Internal Security Council authorised the arrest of over 100 leftist and labour activists. The arrests severely weakened both Barisan Sosialis, a left-wing political party, and the trade union movement, thereby consolidating the Popular Action Party’s (PAP) position as the dominant political force in Singapore. As a result of the PAP’s triumph, the role of trade unions in official histories of Singapore’s struggle for independence has largely been overlooked, with left-wing activists commonly depicted as nothing more than stooges for the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). The marginalisation of the role of trade unions in Singapore’s fight for independence is typical of many former colonial territories, where the actions of labour activists and trade unions during the period of decolonisation are overlooked in favour of broader narratives that focus on imperial decline and the triumph of nationalist elites. Yet, as was demonstrated in the 1950s and 1960s during the struggle for independence and again during the pro-democracy campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s, trade unions in the global south have and continue to play a critical role in movements for social and political change.

It is somewhat surprising then that there have been very few comparative studies of trade unions in the global south. With regard to decolonisation most studies focus on factors relating to metropolitan economic decline, the Cold War, and rising anti-colonial nationalism, which together seem to offer a comprehensive explanation of Britain’s withdrawal from Empire. [1] It is this neglect of trade unions in the process of decolonisation that has inspired my own search for the answer to a big question: how and why did labour movements emerge in Britain’s colonies and why were they regarded as such a threat to imperial control?

In the last decades of imperial rule the British Empire was engulfed by a series of strike waves, such as the empire-wide strikes of the late 1930s and the late 1940s. Almost no colonial territory was left unaffected during the periods of industrial unrest but why did these strike movements emerge at the same time? Each of the strike movements developed in a particular context but all of the protests shared common economic causes relating to low wages, rising inflation, shortages of imports, and increased labour demands. These grievances, however, were not limited to wage-workers. At a time when the workforce was poorly differentiated, with workers circulating between wage and non-wage employment and with urban populations expanding rapidly, whole communities shared similar economic concerns. This enabled workers to draw on the support of the communities in which they lived and, as a consequence, strikes were often as much ‘city centred’ as they were ‘work place centred’. [2] In Nigeria, for example, income provided through the economic activities of market women helped to sustain the 1945 general strike, while in Singapore of the 275 strikes in 1955, approximately 50 per cent were sympathy strikes – both of which underline the sense of shared grievances among workers and the wider community. [3]

Thomas Violence ColonialTo say however that the industrial unrest was simply the result of social and economic inequities common to all colonial societies is, as Martin Thomas has noted in Violence and Colonial Order (2012), something of a platitude. [4] To explain why the labour movements emerged in the form they did and why labour leaders demanded certain social and economic entitlements it is necessary to consider the context in which these movements developed, as well as the methods and language of labour mobilisation. How, for example, did the development of Indian nationalism influence Indian migrants in British Guiana and Malaya? Or how did labour leaders combine existing patterns of affiliation relating to class, race, and gender with wider transnational discourses relating to labour rights? By investigating these questions, historians can counter the simplified ‘official view’ of labour leaders, which routinely condemned activists as ‘radicals’ or ‘communists’. This is particularly pertinent to the case of Singapore, where recent studies of labour leaders, many of whom were either imprisoned by the British or later by the PAP, have challenged the official view that trade unions were simply a front for the MCP and were in fact committed to workers’ rights and anti-colonial nationalism. [5]

The strike movements presented a considerable threat to the imperial authorities. Not only did the strikes cause considerable economic disruption but many colonial administrations feared that the protests would escalate into broader anti-colonial unrest. Confronted with widespread protests the imperial authorities sought to contain the labour disputes and re-shape the colonial worker in the image of his European counterpart through the introduction of metropolitan inspired industrial relations machinery and social welfare infrastructure. For example, in order to justify slum clearance programmes the Singapore Improvement Trust characterised the informal kampong settlements that surrounded the edge of the city as insanitary and as a threat to social stability. In place of the Kampong settlements the colonial authorities, and later the PAP government, built public housing estates in the belief that planned neighbourhoods, with housing that required the payment of regular monthly rent, would help to create an efficient and disciplined workforce. [6]

Cheddi Jagan meeting with President John F. Kennedy.
Cheddi Jagan meeting with President John F. Kennedy.

It was envisaged that these labour reforms would help to prevent industrial disputes from being transformed into broader anti-colonial protest but, as already noted, the urban riots, spontaneous strikes, and organised trade union action that affected the British Empire during post-war period transcended the boundaries of the workplace, involving not just workers but whole communities. In the context of the Cold War, where any form of protest was regarded as a manifestation of radicalism or as a sign of impending imperial collapse, the colonial authorities routinely resorted to the violent suppression of industrial action. The monitoring and imprisonment of labour leaders by security forces, the use of lethal force during protests and riots, and the deployment of police resources to protect strategic industries and essential economic infrastructure all served to underline the fact that labour discipline and the effective functioning of the economy were regarded as central to the survival of colonial rule. [7] In 1953, amidst growing labour unrest, Cheddi Jagan was elected as Prime Minister of British Guiana and in response the Conservative British government, fearing that colony was about to succumb to communism, suspended the constitution, arrested Jagan, and dispatched British troops to secure key sites. [8]

This tension between the modernising labour reforms and the colonial authorities’ use of violence reveals the contradictions inherent to late colonial rule. On the one hand, the introduction of trade union legislation and the increased regulation of workers’ lives through social welfare provision provided, however flawed, renewed moral legitimacy for imperialism and enabled the colonial state to extend its control beyond the workplace. However, on the other hand, so long as colonial subjects were denied the same economic and political rights as metropolitan citizens, instances of rioting, workplace stoppages, and industrial strikes would remain endemic. The deployment of concentrated state violence could suppress such episodes and restore stability but, as Martin Thomas has argued in his recent work Violence and Colonial Order, such stability was superficial. Since colonial regimes were unwilling to address the grievances that contributed to the outbreak of the unrest, the cycle of protest and suppression was destined to repeat itself. [9] It was this perpetual instability, which, when combined with the factors outlined at the start of the article, served to unravel the British Empire.

Works Cited

[1] The exception to this of course is Frederick Cooper, Decolonization and African Society: The Labor Question in French and British Africa (Cambridge, 1996).

[2] ibid., p. 227.

[3] Lisa Lindsay, ‘Domesticity and Difference: Male Breadwinners, Working Women, and Colonial Citizenship in the 1945 Nigerian General Strike’, American Historical Review, Vol. 104 (1999), pp. 783–812 and Fernandez and Loh Kah Seng, ‘The Left Wing Trade Unions’ in Michael D. Barr and Carl A. Trocki (eds) Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Post-War Singapore (Singapore, 2008), p. 213.

[4] Martin Thomas, Violence and Colonial Order: Police, Workers, and the European Empires, 1918-40 (Cambridge, 2012).

[5] See for example: Dominic J. Puthucheary and Jomo K. S. (eds) No Cowardly Past: James Puthucheary. Writings, Poems, Commentaries (Kuala Lumpur, 1998); Francis Seow, To Catch a Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison (New Haven, 1994); Tan Jing Quee, Comet in Our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History (Kuala Lumpur, 2001); and Said Zahari, The Long Nightmare: My Seventeen Years as a Political Prisoner (Kuala Lumpur, 2007).

[6] Loh Kah Seng, Squatters into Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore (Singapore, 2013).

[7] David Killingray and David M. Anderson, ‘An Orderly Retreat? Policing the End of Empire’, in David M. Anderson and David Killingray (eds) Policing and Decolonisation: Politics, Nationalism, and the Police, 1917-65 (Manchester, 1992), p. 11.

[8] Spencer Mawby, Ordering Independence: The End of Empire in the Anglophone Caribbean, 1947-69 (London, 2012), pp. 80-94.

[9] Thomas, Violence and Colonial Order.