Responses in South Africa to the outbreak of WWI: Impact on the Indian Working class: the Growth of Indian trade unions

Those who formed part of the poorest section of the Indian community, such a labourers, artisans, market-gardeners bore the brunt of the effect of the increase in basic Indian foods such as rice, dhall ghee, etc. The cost of rice, for example, more than doubled, while that of dhall and ghee tripled in price. Unemployment among the Indian laboring classes rose steadily during the war. This combined with the massive increase in basic foodstuffs led to a rapid growth in Indian trade unions.  The ISL was already active in Natal from about 1915. Its members were actively involved in the organising of trade unions for Indian workers. The ISL also organized night classes in Marxist literature and theory. (Mantzaris: 1983: 116). In March 1917, the Indian Workers Industrial Union was established with Bernard Sigamoney as secretary and Gordon Lee as chairman, both members of the International Socialist League.  In the same year the Indian Printers Union was formed. Lee was also involved in establishing the Durban Workers Industrial Union, which organised workers in the printing, tobacco, laundry, and municipal industries.

A number of mass protest meetings in response to the steep rise in basic food prices were held in which trade union leaders played an important role. In June 1916, a mass meeting was organised by the Natal Hindu League at the Indian Market. Both Sigamoney and Lee addressed a mass meeting attended by over 1000 Indians at the Royal Picture Palace in September 1917. Lee pointed out if the government could fix the price of sugar, it could do the same for other foodstuffs. Sigamoney warned of people bearing the brunt of the massive price increases ‘taking the law into their own hands’ and volunteered to lead any such action. Indian Opinion, however, called for peaceful demonstrations, arguing against any ‘disorderly’ action that would damage property.

The position of Indian workers was made worse by attempts of organised white labour to expel them form jobs that they had filled during the absence of white workers as a result of the war.  Pressure was made to bear on employers such as the Durban City Council, private contractors and tearooms not to employ cheap Indian labour. Their precarious position encouraged a drive towards organising themselves into labour unions.  By July 1919,  unionisation of Indian workers included the dockworkers, painters, tobacco workers, catering, garment, shop assistants, hotels, restaurants and tearooms (Vahed:58).

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Last updated : 04-Oct-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 24-Feb-2014