The Political Economy of Discontent:


Population, Jamaica: Age groups (to nearest 1000), 1963
Age in Years Number (‘OOOs) Age in Years Number (‘000s)
Under 1 64 40-44 75
1- 4 245 45-49 72
5- 9 263 50-5-1 69
10-14 206 55-59 56
15-19 163 60-64 42
20-24 126 65-69 30
25-29 99 70-74 19
30-34 84 75-79 13
35-39 77 80 and over 14
Annual Abstract of Statistics, 1967, No. 26,

(Dept. of Statistics, Jamaica) p. 12


The uncertainties and insecurities are substantiated in the state of the economy which offers little cause for confidence. Economists write of “the race between development and discontent” and underline the essential difficulty:

“Unemployment is clearly the major social and economic problem in Jamaica. The levels of unemployment and under­employment are high and are in part a result of the rapid growth of population. Un­employment is particularly high in the case of women and young persons, and there are serious difficulties facing school-leavers in regard to obtaining employment.”

(Jamaica: 5-Year Independence Plan, 1963-1968. pp. 11, 36.)

Their concern can only be magnified when they consider the fact that the Jamaican population is largely a young one.

Primarily, we remain an agricultural country in which the best agricultural land is occupied by the estates. The estates are, in general, efficiently managed; but efficiency does not equal economy. Our estates suffer from smallness of size, which limits economies of scale in their operation; and from the high cost of labour. Our precarious position in the markets for the produce of the estates is clearly indicated by the frequency with which we send people abroad in search of preferences, guaranteed prices and quotas. But even if we did reduce costs by further substituting machinery for labour we should simply add to the mass of unemployment. In short, the society at large would pay for the sugar industry’s gains. The time has come, it would seem, to begin the planning of a strategic withdrawal from sugar-production. But we are a little mesmerised by the long drumming into our heads of the importance of the welfare of the sugar industry to the welfare of the country at large.

Because the estates are comparatively efficient and well-provided, the government’s agricultural policies have been directed rather to the development of peasant agriculture and small-farming. The amount and variety of aid given in the form of grants, credits, marketing-facilities and agricultural extension, has enormously increased and has not been unproductive. But unfortunately, there are two large motives behind the programmes: one is to increase agricultural skills and productivity; the other is to stem the flow of people from the rural areas into Kingston. Farmers can get money, urban dwellers cannot. A good deal of so-called agricultural assistance is in fact a form of subsidy to those who stay out of town and, in the long run, lends to a further fragmentation of small-farm units which is contrary to the expressed aims of agricultural policy.

The answer, it may be, lies in the reduction of population and of the rate of population growth. The first at least, seemed clear to those who emigrated or who wish to emigrate. But we have discovered that in those countries we have learned about as places of great wealth and opportunity though our labour may be welcomed we, as people of colour, are not. More effective than emigration, would be birth-control. But some are opposed in principle, and in any case education in the use of devices takes time and money, both of which are short. It is not easy now to persuade people that they are multiplying too rapidly when for nearly 300 years they have been told that they were not multiplying fast enough The estate-owners, supported by the Colonial Office, were all in favour of large populations and cheap labour, until the trade unions appeared. Only recently have they discovered the greater uses of machinery.

There is no doubt that the structure of the Jamaican economy is now more attractive than it was fifteen years ago, or that the national production and income have increased. The range of exports has widened from the old dependence on agricultural staples to include minerals and mineral products and manufactured goods. Partly as a result of the discovery of bauxite and the development of that industry the value of domestic exports rapidly increased from £ 17.3 million in 1952 to £62.1 million in 1962. Another indicator of growth is the national income per capita, which increased from £15.1 in 1938 to £136.7 in 1962. But, as the Government’s “Independence” Plan also points out, ” …. though these figures are indicative of the progress made, they do not show the distribution of the income” (pp. 20-21). There are the expected inequalities of wage-rates between various occupations, most strikingly between agriculture and mining; but even more productive of discontent is the distinction between those who are gainfully employed and the growing number of those who are not.

The bauxite industry, in extreme illustration, uses little labour. It is heavily mechanised, calls for a few skilled workers rather than a mass of labour, and labour costs are but a small proportion of total costs. The industry can afford to pay high wage rates and in consequence there have been created around the mining and smelting operations pockets of workers whose incomes are high above those earned by people in the surrounding agricultural areas. This creates pressures on the general wage-structure which, though they would lead to a very desirable end, are in our present (and foreseeable) circumstances embarrassing.

Following the example of Puerto Rico and recommendations made by economists, we began, in the early 1950’s, to encourage the setting up of light manufacturing industries. The main advantages to be derived were the provision of employment, the introduction of new skills, and a basic diversification of the economy. The government provided various incentives to attract investors. But we live in a very competitive world in which small, unimportant, high cost producers cannot thrive. Because our trade unions are highly organised, wage-rates are high. Therefore, wherever possible, manufacturers introduce machinery. We gain by the skills and the consequent diversification of production; but the essential matter, unemployment, is hardly affected. The incidence of unemployment does not diminish; and since our political parties are so firmly based on rival trade-unions, government policies of wage-restraint are politically dangerous and the possibilities of establishing labour intensive rather than capital-intensive enterprises are weakened.


Average Weekly Earnings (£) of Workers in Selected Industries

Argriculture Mining Manufacture Construction Utilities Commerce Transport & Comm. Selected SErvices
Private Govt Private Govt
March 1963 3.7 18.3 6.6 8.7 2.3 17.8 3.0 10.2 7.2 5.4
March 1964 3.7 20.0 6.9 8.3 2.7 17.2 3.3 11.1 5.7.69
Extracted from “Annual Abstract of Statistics, 1967, No 26, p.115 Table 137

The impressive overall growth of the 1950’s has not been sustained. Gross domestic product at current prices has declined from an average annual growth-rate of 7.6%, during 1963-1966, to 4.4% in 1967; and allowances must be made for the influence of rising prices on that calculation. Rapid population growth, the impossibility of creating new employment at an equal rate (not to mention absorbing the backlog of present unemployment), and the clear imbalance between the agricultural and the mining and manufacturing sectors, provide the economists’ nightmares. The 1968 budget provides for still greater financial assistance to agriculture, the lagging sector upon whose improvement, it is said, depends any “real progress in solving the problem of unemployment.” (West Indies Chronicle, May, 1968). But the solution cannot lie in loans to farmers. A basic reconsideration of the system of land tenure and of land use, with determination to plan for radical change, seem to be the obvious first steps toward solid’ achievement.

The island’s third largest “export” industry is tourism which has rapidly expanded during the past fifteen years and now brings in about £29 million a year. The problems raised by tourism are social rather than economic. As a dollar earner the trade is encouraged by the economists. But its influences are socially deplorable. The blame lies not with the tourists but with us. Because of our poverty and because of our basic lack of self-respect and self-­confidence, we treat the tourist as a rich man to be robbed or as a god to be propitiated. We offer small goods and services for high prices, we beg for alms, we demand tips, we tell him how much we need him, and we try our best to show him what happy dancing souls the “natives” are. Some of these features are common to tourism everywhere; but we are marked by a lack of confidence in our own house, and an absence of real pride in our possessions which we are satisfied to display chiefly as “curiosities”. This is not surprising. Our colonial experience never led us to believe that we had anything of much value except sugar, bananas, and the tropical climate in which they thrive. But it is doubly unfortunate, since it encourages the tourist, at best, to offer high praise to our beaches and faint praise to us.