Gold Coast (International Miners' Delegation)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd June 1955.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Godber.]

11.8 p.m.

Photo of Mr William Blyton Mr William Blyton , Houghton-le-Spring

I raise a question tonight in relation to the Gold Coast. The Gold Coast people have travelled a good way along the road towards self-government in recent years. It would be an understatement to say that they are at the final stage before independence. It is the aim of all hon. Members on this side of the House to encourage the growth in this country of the social, economic, and political institutions which will foster a democratic spirit. We believe that it is our duty to aid and guide this young country with its institutions along the path of the Western democratic free world.

One issue which must concern us is the encouragement and growth of the trade unions in the Gold Coast. We welcome the growth of the trade unions in the Commonwealth. The standard of life of the colonial peoples cannot be genuinely raised until the trade unions have become strong. The issue is whether the spirit of trade unionism in the Colonies can be created from outside. In Europe, and especially in Britain, the trade unions have grown up from the bitter and tragic struggles of the working class to get a standard of living from their employers. We want, if possible, to avoid the colonial workers having to undergo that experience. I recognise that only a small proportion of colonial inhabitants have a real conception of the fundamentals of trade unionism, and that much work has to be done in adult education to teach the principles of collective bargaining and the conciliation methods of the Western world's trade unions.

This brings me to the question, "Are trade unions being encouraged in the Gold Coast?" The Minister may reply that this is a matter for the Government of the Gold Coast, for which he is not responsible; but if employers with nineteenth-century minds towards trade unions create bitterness and resentment among colonial peoples by their actions, the responsibility is ours for maintaining the peace of that Colony. It is because of the bitterness and resentment of the Gold Coast miners against the Chamber of Mines over the refusal to allow the miners to accompany an international miners' delegation on its visit to the mines there, that I would like an expression to go from this House of our disgust at the attitude of the Gold Coast Chamber of Mines.

The Miners' International comprises 25 countries of the free world. Representations were made to it in 1954 to go to the Gold Coast to see the conditions of the miners, study the regulations for safety in the industry, see whether the employees' unions were lacking in organisation, and what was necessary for progress and advancement in negotiations, agreements and conciliation methods. These were laudable objects with a view to helping to establish free trade unions and to increase the efficiency of the Miners' Union of the Gold Coast.

In a letter on 28th December, 1954, the Chairman of the Gold Coast Chamber of Mines said: With regard to the forthcoming visit to the Gold Coast of a delegation from the Miners' International Federation, the Chamber of Mines will certainly co-operate with the Gold Coast Union to make the visit a pleasant and successful one. In a letter dated 24th January to the Gold Coast Employees' Union Executive and the local branch secretary of the union in the area, the Chamber of Mines agreed that they could accompany the delegation at each of their properties. On 5th January, in the "Ashanti Pioneer," the local paper, there was published the fact of the delegation's arrival, giving the dates upon which several meetings would be held. The paper mentioned dates upon which visits to the properties would take place. The paper gave seven dates, but the draft programme worked out by the Miners' Union mentioned 11 dates. This little incident gave rise to conduct which can only be described as childish and something not expected from the intelligent men who comprise the employers in the Chamber of Mines. It is really an attempt to use methods against trade unions which are out of date in the twentieth century. The general manager of the Chamber of Mines wrote to the Commissioner of Labour complaining that, in view of the unions' behaviour at the board of inquiry, the delegation could not be invited to visit the Chamber of Mines' property.

The leader of this delegation was the Vice-President of the National Union of Mineworkers, Mr. Edward Jones, who is a highly respected member of the trade union movement. They left London on 27th February and, after a week in Nigeria, they landed at Accra on 6th March. They then received a letter dated 28th February from the Chamber of Mines stating that the manner in which the local union had treated the Chamber of Mines and the mine officials made it impossible for them to allow the local branch officials of the miners' executive of the Gold Coast to accompany them to the property, although they invited Mr. Jones and the delegation to attend.

A meeting was held which was attended by the general manager, the president of the union, and the delegation, and the Miners' Union strenuously denied any responsibility for the publication of the draft itinerary of the visit. This had been the main bone of contention, and in the light of the union's denial the Chamber of Mines were asked to reconsider their decision and to invite the local miners to attend with the delegation.

I do not know what state of mind prevails among these people, for the union stated they were not responsible and yet, despite that, the general manager sent a letter which, I think, is a disgrace. He laid down two conditions which had to be complied with before the invitation would be extended to them. First, the Gold Coast Mines Employees' Union must express regret for the rudeness with which they treated the Chamber of Mines. Secondly, if the visit of the international delegation was made the opportunity for any kind of further rudeness, the visit would be terminated instantly and the visit to the remaining mines would be cancelled. I have been a local lodge official for 25 years, and I have had a row with every manager who ever worked at my pit. If the miners had received a letter like that the pits would never have been worked.

The general manager of the Chamber of Mines must be a touchy individual, and it is apparent that there will be no encouragement from him in the development of the trade unions on the Gold Coast. Is there any trade union with any self-respect or dignity which could accept a letter of that character in the face of having denied the main charge against it?

The union made a dignified reply and stated that they could not accept the implications. The international delegation said they could not accept the dictates of the Chamber of Mines and that, as the Gold Coast miners were an integral part of the Miners' International, they refused to go to the property of the Chamber of Mines. Was there ever a more flimsy excuse? Simply because someone in the local paper published the draft itinerary of the visit, all this bitterness and resentment has been created.

Mr. Jones made a statement when he left. I will not read it all but will give what I consider to be the main part of his statement. He said: We were, to say the least, surprised that there was no one in the Gold Coast, either among eminent mining engineers, or among the high officials of the Chamber, entrusted with sufficient authority to authorise visits to mines without permission having to be granted by people in London. This must be for them a most undignified and humiliating position, which, in our experience, could not be encountered anywhere else in the world. We desire to express our deepest thanks to the Ministers of the Gold Coast Government and their departmental officials … which have been of great assistance and have throughout shown a forbearance and spirit not emulated by the Chamber of Mines. The net result of this has been tragic. The Bureau of the Miners' International, which comprises 25 nations, is so disgusted and bitter about the affair that it has passed a resolution regretting the attitude of the Chamber of Mines and has decided now to examine ways and means whereby the anti-trade union attitude of the Chamber in Accra can be met.

There is no doubt that the Chamber of Mines ought to have some lessons in human relations. It is tragic that a delegation which set out with the high purpose of inculcating into the Gold Coast our method of trade union activity should have met such anti-trade union employers as those in the Chamber of Mines. It is our ambition that, as they develop to independence, our Colonies will join the British Commonwealth. How can we expect to bring them with us if such conduct as that of the Chamber of Mines—

Photo of Mr William Blyton Mr William Blyton , Houghton-le-Spring

—creates mistrust and bitterness against us?

I want to thank the Minister of State for Colonial Affairs, who met us with great courtesy before the General Election. I would interpolate that the representative of the Chamber of Mines whom I met gave us very little satisfaction at all during the whole business. I realise that the Minister has a difficult task, but I think he ought to say that the Government intend to encourage trade unionism in the Colonies and are against this anti-trade union attitude. It ought also to go out from this House that the Chamber of Mines in Accra ought to show some forbearance and a different spirit to the trade unions. For the Governor of the Gold Coast we have nothing but high praise, and we thank him very greatly indeed for the high tribute he paid the delegation for the work it did under such trying circumstances.

There is no doubt that the attitude exhibited in the Gold Coast has done great damage. We shall do all in our power to fight the anti-trade union attitude in the Chamber of Mines. We shall at the same time still try to guide the trade unions of the Gold Coast in the path of the Western pattern of free world trade unionism. Not to do this would mean that they would come under other influences. In this process the Government can help, and the owners of the companies can also do so by having in the Chamber of Mines men with a more radical outlook on life instead of the vicious outlook that now prevails. In that way we can lay a sure foundation so that, when they become independent, our Colonies will join us in the British Commonwealth.

11.25 p.m.

Photo of Mr James Jones Mr James Jones , Wrexham

I have listened with considerable interest to my hon. Friends, and I have been surprised beyond words at the treatment meted out to trade union representatives. I am surprised because of my personal knowledge of Mr. Edward Jones. I have this particular knowledge from many years of intimate personal relationship with Mr. Jones. I know his manner, I understand his outlook, and I know his integrity and his tolerance. He has been Chairman of the Wrexham Trades Council for many years, he is a justice of the peace as well as vice-president of the National Union of Mineworkers. These positions of trust speak of the ability, integrity and high regard in which he is held in North Wales and in the National Union of Mineworkers. Mr. Edward Jones is a man of sound and mature judgment. He is cool, amiable and thoroughly disinterested in his approach to industrial problems. If he has one guiding motive it is his passion for establishing harmonious relationships based on the principles of justice.

I saw Mr. Edward Jones the night before he left for the Gold Coast, and I can assure the House that he left inspired with a sense of his mission and of his great responsibility. He was ready to give from the wealth of his personal experience, experience gained from the school of life. He realises that trade unionism in the Gold Coast is in its infancy. It is a child which needs all the advice and guidance which can be given. If this young and as yet immature trade union movement is to grow into a responsible movement which will foster peace, harmony, understanding and justice, it needs guidance, and I can assure this House that no person is better fitted by experience or more inspired by harmonious relationships and justice than Mr. Edward Jones.

I am proud to give this testimony on the Floor of this House. If the attitude which we have heard here tonight is that taken towards our most trustworthy trade union leaders, then it does not augur well for the future. We cannot be quiet on these benches. The wind may be sown today, but others will have to reap the whirlwind.

11.28 p.m.

Photo of Mr Harold Finch Mr Harold Finch , Bedwellty

Those of us who have listened to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Blyton) must view with deep concern the treatment meted out to the representatives of the Miner's International on their visit to the Gold Coast. The history of this matter has been well given by my hon. Friend, and I do not want to enlarge upon it. However, I want to point out that here is an international body representing 25 organisations, a responsible trade union organisation. Sir William Lawther, its secretary, and Mr. Edward Jones, the vice-president of the National Union of Mine Workers, were appointed to visit the Gold Coast. Acting simply on information given in the Press about the itinerary of the visit, Mr. Edward Jones with his colleague, as representing the Miners' International, was refused permission to go with the representative of the local union to visit the properties of the mines on the Gold Coast.

That is a very serious matter. All we are asking is that we should have a statement from the right hon. Gentleman as to his attitude on this matter at the very time when we are trying to build up responsible trade unionism and good citizenship in the Gold Coast. This has come as a staggering blow to those of us who are attached to the Trade Union movement, and it calls for a statement from the Minister as to his attitude in respect of our endeavours to bring about a better feeling in the Gold Coast.

11.29 p.m.

Photo of Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd , Mid Bedfordshire

I am indebted to the three hon. Gentlemen, the Members for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Blyton), Wrexham (Mr. Idwal Jones) and Bedwellty (Mr. Finch), for the brevity with which they have put forward a cause about which, quite understandably, they feel strongly. No doubt other constitutionally-minded people might be a little uncertain as to my exact standing in this matter in view of the large measure of internal self-government in the Gold Coast, but I would like this opportunity of repeating certain fundamental truths. We believe in the immense role the Trade Union movement can play in British Colonial Territories, and, not the least, the contribution that I hope we have made to the developing self-governing territories in the Commonwealth is a recognition of that simple but very important fact.

Anything which ministers to trade union advancement in its proper field we will certainly gladly support. Anything which might be regarded as a reflection on the Trade Union movement we would most certainly wholeheartedly condemn. I know that the Trade Union movement in the Gold Coast maintains its original purpose—the organisation of its workers to look after their wages and conditions. Like all three hon. Members who have spoken tonight, I am very unhappy about what happened on this visit. I join with those hon. Members in the tribute they paid to Sir Charles Arden-Clarke, the Governor of the Gold Coast, and I join with Sir Charles in endorsing the value of the delegation's visit in what I recognise were difficult circumstances.

I will not go into the background of this unhappy dispute. There has been a good deal of misunderstanding about it. There has been a meeting here presided over by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Colonial Affairs, who could not be here tonight, and because he could not be here I wanted, by coming myself, to show the respect in which we hold visits of this kind by responsible trade union bodies and the desire, about which I feel strongly, that they should be given every possible facility.

I will not go over the story, because I think the time left to me now would not allow me to do it. Perhaps I could content myself by saying these few words. The whole of the business appears to have arisen from a number of misunderstandings due to the strained relations that were existing at the time of the visit that had nothing whatever to do with the International Federation—the relations between the Gold Coast Union and the Chamber. The whole question must be looked at against the background of the relations of the Chamber and the union at the time.

I am particularly sorry that this embarrassing situation should have arisen in the case of a visit of such a distinguished trade union figure as Mr. Edward Jones, the vice-president of the National Union of Mineworkers, whose work for good labour relations is known throughout the world. I know that all associated with the Government of the Gold Coast and the British Colonial Administration will join with me in regretting any distress that he may have been caused.

But, in fairness, I must say that when the union said in effect that they could not express regret for this publication because they denied responsibility, perhaps they might also have risen above protocol and just said a few words of regret. Nonetheless, I think that there has been a great deal too much standing on dignity on both sides in this matter. I think that the most fruitful consequence of it is that we should not attempt to do more than point the moral and hope that something has been learned out of this incident and that good manners will in future prevail so that we shall not have a repetition.

This is an unhappy story. It is one which I hope will not happen again. It is not for me to issue invitations to other peoples' gatherings, but it might not be a bad idea if something along these lines could happen. Why should not another visit take place—another visit without any incident of this kind, so that the memory of this unfortunate business might be wiped out and a really harmonious and happy and co-operative result might be achieved? I make this suggestion because I am anxious that we should, as far as possible, use misunderstandings in order to create better conditions in future, but I should not like it to be thought that in answering this debate I felt otherwise than this.

British industry and British firms in West Africa and elsewhere have immense obligations, and much is due to them for the work that they have done. I hope that in a possible future visit some of the unhappy memories of this affair could be wiped out, so that we could all face the future together in a more profitable way.

11.35 p.m.

Photo of Mr James Griffiths Mr James Griffiths , Llanelli

I should like, on behalf of my hon. Friends, to thank the right hon. Gentleman for having come here tonight and for having made what I think we all agree was a very fine statement. This was a most unfortunate affair. I am myself a member of the National Union of Mineworkers, and Mr. Edward Jones is an old friend of mine. The Colonial Secretary knows how helpful that union has been in Africa and other territories, where its great help and experience has been freely available, and, like him, I hope that a return visit under happier circumstances may remove bitter memories. At least, I can believe that my hon. Friends have rendered a service to good relations with the Colonies, and I should like to thank the Colonial Secretary for having made the remarks he has so that we can send out a message from this House which, we all pray, will do something to help the constructive role of the trade unions in our Colonies.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Twelve o'clock.