"This Was Panama"
By Ruth C. Stuhl
Star and Herald Newspaper - September 1962

Many of the West Indian laborers who contributed so much to the building of the Canal were hired at a starting wage of ten cents an hour. By today’s standards, and perhaps yesterday’s also, their sense of humor, desire for education, pride of workmanship, and belief in the God who is working out His purpose in this world, etc. - that sustained them and bought slow but inevitable advancement.

Fifty years have brought many changes in wages, living standards, and opportunities. I do not mean to suggest that labor should be satisfied with present conditions because past conditions ere worse. However, for historical interest and perspective, let’s take a look at the situation at an approximate mid-point between the time of the ten cent wage and today.

The following extracts are from a radio address made by S. W. Whyte, President of the Panama Canal West Indian Employee’s Association, in Colon on Labor Day, 1936, as reported by the Star 7 Herald of September 12, 1936.

"How has the West Indian served the Panama Canal? How has the Panama Canal served the West Indian? And perhaps, how has the West Indian served himself? As it may not be generally known who is this West Indian, I might state that he is a person of African decent, black or nearly black, hailing from some island in the Caribbean Sea. He has been seeing service in connection with the development of enterprise on the Isthmus of Panama since the building of the Panama Railroad about the year 1850. So he worked with the French Canal Company and was met here when the Isthmian Canal Commission took over form the French in 1904.

Native labor was inadequate, too few and emaciated. In addition there was a language difficulty. The Americans could not undergo long exposure to the frequent interchange of sunshine and tropical rain, and at the same time withstand the fevers. The solution of the problem was to procure the necessary thousands of the colored brothers from the West Indies and perhaps some colored sisters’ to keep the brothers cheerful on the job.

It appeared to have been a psychological moment for both parties, for while the Commission needed workers, the West Indian needed work, because the British West Indies were then in a perilous economic condition., owing to the disbandment of certain naval and military establishments here, and to the ruin of their once flourishing sugar industry through the flooding of the English market by German bounty-fed beet root sugar. In answer to the call thousands came, some by contract and others without.

Within a couple of years our group had outnumbered all others put together in the service, even at the time when there were fully forty thousand employees, including about 8,000 Spaniards and Italians and are still maintaining this numerical superiority. Although a large majority of us have been engaged in unskilled and menial work, a fair percentage has always been at skilled and semi-skilled work. Thousands have gone to untimely graves from disease and accidents, and there are hundreds maimed and dismembered in the premature explosions of dynamite, train wrecks and other railroad accidents, we were at the head of the casualty lists.

In December ,1913, Colonel Goethals said, "The task of constructing the Panama Canal is nearly completed. In the task of construction the West Indian laborer has had a large and creditable share. As a class they have improved steadily in efficiency, have been a cheerful, obedient and orderly body of workers, causing very little trouble in management. It can be said truthfully, that by furnishing close at hand an ample labor supply, they made the task easier of accomplishment that would have been possible without them.

How has the Panama Canal served the West Indians? I should say the Canal has done much for which we are grateful. They have furnished employment for thousands during these thirty odd years; it has furnished free primary education in well-appointed and equipped buildings, supplying everything gratis except stationery. It allows fifteen days pay per year for absence on account of illness, cumulative to 30 days in two years, but no more as long as on continues well. This I conscientiously feel is a comprehensive list of benefits we have been receiving from the Panama Canal. To this we must add cheap and generous medical car.

For many year we have been pleading for improvements. Wages: our wage scale is too low. It shows an average of $55.00 a month as against $250.00 a month for the Americans. Considering that we spend most of our earnings for subsistence in the Canal Commissaries on goods produced in America by high priced labor. It is evident that we are being kept in a state of want on such a low wage scale. Government officials themselves have on several occasions stated that the aliens have always been employed at a standard of wages, which has militated against their making any provision for the future. This low standard of wage for such a large percentage of the force must tend materially to contribute to the millions of dollars of yearly profit being shown by the Canal.

Education: primary education alone is not sufficient to enable a people to hold their own in the present age. Of course, white aliens and a few of those of fair complexion enjoy the full educational course so it seems that we are up against a color bar. The official idea appears to be that our children should not be trained in any line in which they might compete with young Americans. On the contrary, we believe that such training would help our boys to get away from the Canal Zone and ease the tension in the unemployment situation.

Rest Leave: We get no rest leave. This is one of or greatest difficulties in the service. I know a colored policeman, for instance, with 32 years service who has never been in hospital and has never had a day’s rest from his employer. The citizen gets 54 days a year. The Republic of Panama requires all permanent workers to have 30 days a year. It is asked that the 15 days allowed us for sickness be made to include rest as well.

Pension: Our most pressing need is old age and disability protection, or pension for those on the roles of the Panama Canal (those on the roles of the Panama Railroad are pensionable). To the credit of the Canal Zone administration it can truthfully be stated that for the past six years they have been making great efforts to bring about legislation for this purpose, and the responsibility for its absence rests fully with Congress.

Policy: There is a studied policy of repression. The colored employee, it seems, is not supposed to be much more than physical. He gets the inferiority complex rubbed into him to keep him in his place. While the executive officials are striving to secure pension legislation for us, foremen and physicians are busy scrapping old timers who are not able to jump and climb as in years gone by. These must either accept free transportation back home, with a gift of $25.00 or go to the Corozal work farm on the Zone, or be thrown out upon the world as objects of pity. Life on the farm at Corozal is not bad, but there is not room for dependents, and there are many of the better class who would find it tedious to live on the farm.

This policy of repression is getting more marked as the old timers in the official class are passing out. The young ones that come with new ideas and being unaware of the history of the undertaking and our connection with it, are causing us concern. The policy does not harmonize with our service, nor with the words of recognition of it as expressed by Colonels Goethals and Hardings: nor as reason should dictate. We want a chance to look up, to feel that we are persons and that the threat of discharge is not hanging over one’s head when he attempts to stand up for his rights.

How has the West Indian served himself on the Canal? Of about 8,000 of us in the service now, slightly under 1,000 are in good standing in the Panama Canal West Indian Employees’ Association our only mouthpiece since January 1921 although membership costs only a dollar a yar. There are less than 2,000 of us in the Death Benefit Association. The support that we have been giving these interests does not seem to speak well for us. Too long have we lived the individual life in this service; too long have we been content to leave things to chance while we lie down and nurse our wounds. This an industrial community in a industrial age; let us not hope to succeed in it unorganized, because industry is organized.