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R. Craine

Imported Jamaican Laborers Work
Under Peon Conditions

(July 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 29, 19 July 1943, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

When the Duke and Duchess of Windsor arrived in New York about a month ago they made some very enlightening and world-shaking remarks to the press. For instance, the Duchess was well pleased with the general situation but complained that the royal couple did not have enough American dollars to spend. This, of course, did not prevent them from attending every show and play – and even two visits to the circus (ringside seats, of course) – in the city or from ordering several new wardrobes in the swankiest tailoring and dressmaking establishments this side of the Atlantic.

The Duke visited a New Jersey labor camp where some four hundred of his “subjects,” imported from Jamaica to help with the farm labor shortage in this country, were engaged in asparagus picking. According to the Duke, the work was proceeding quite well and he was satisfied that “his” people were being cared for and treated with every consideration. His only regret was that he himself was not young enough to assist at this heavy physical labor!

The Duke’s age was certainly a fortunate thing for him, for had he undertaken to work at the farm he would have found the following conditions:

Living Conditions and Food

In Swedesboro, N.J., there are four hundred Jamaican farm laborers living in a labor camp which was built to accommodate only two hundred and fifty pebple. These workers came to the United States, together with thousands of others, under contract with the American government, to work in farming areas where there was a manpower shortage.

When they arrived at the government camp at Swedesboro, N.J., they found that they would have to live in wooden shacks. Others were not so fortunate; they were given tents which are hot by day and cold by night. The food which was accorded them consisted of: Weak tea and four slices of bread for breakfast; two sandwiches (cheese or jam, no butter), an orange or apple, cake, water for lunch. For dinner they were on their own. When they complained about this, the United States Army mess sergeant in charge added a third sandwich to the lunch and promised to supply a noon drink, something like punch.

These sumptuous meals, however, were supplied to only a part of the four hundred laborers; many others have gotten nothing! When the workers lined up for their rations, the leaders among them claim, as many as two hundred had gone unfed for many days, since the food would run out before the end of the line was reached. The government is willing to admit to only seventy or eighty unfed laborers!

Rules of Conduct for Natives

These workers are sick and tired of the way they have been treated and they want to return home. When they left their homes to come to these shores they were told by the Labor Department of Jamaica that they should live up to the reputation of hard-working, industrious, well-behaved men. “Be as courteous to your employer and to all those whom you meet as you would wish them to be to you.’’

“Social customs vary in different parts of the United States,” they were warned. “Remember, that in the United States the word ‘Negro’ is not used to offend but is used and accepted in the same way as the word ‘colored’ in Jamaica.” They were not warned that the word “Negro” in the United States is the excuse of lynchings, race hatreds and race riots. But they learned this soon after they got here.

But the real tip-off about the status of the Jamaican farm hand in this country is contained in this paragraph of the government-issued pamphlet of instructions: “Should you leave camp without authority, seeking work elsewhere, you will not be able to get it because you hold no United States Selective Service card which is demanded of every man applying for work.”

Jamaicans Are Indentured

In other words, these workers are in the United tates in the status of indentured servants – they are under contract to work for a given length of time, regardless of the conditions awarded them, and they cannot leave their jobs unless they wish to take up as refugees without any legal standing in the community.

Appeals to the camp authorities will yield nothing, except an additional sandwich. This is a job for the trade unions. The Jamaican workers must be granted full rights of a worker – the right to leave his job if he is not satisfied with it and to look for work elsewhere, if he wishes to remain in the United tates, or be given passage back home if he wishes to return. Those who remain at the camps must be organized into unions of agricultural workers through which they can fight for decent wages and living conditions.

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