Saints go marching for right to work

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 April, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 April, 1997, 12:00am


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The Saints are unhappy. The 6,000 residents of one of Britain's other colonial legacies are protesting at job shortages and cuts in public spending in an issue not without resonance to Hong Kong.

St Helena, in the mid-Atlantic, is on one level a charmed island. I sailed there from Ascension Island in 1985, three or four days south to a tiny speck in the ocean where the local priest sat drinking whisky in an old wooden bar, stetson on his head and poncho over his shoulder, more real than the Clint Eastwood he apparently modelled himself on.

The only access was by sea - and there was not even a harbour, you came ashore by swinging precariously on to a jetty from a suspended rope above the constant South Atlantic swell.

There is no airstrip and everywhere are abandoned fields of hemp growing taller than a man, a long abandoned cash crop scheme for the island from when the British Post Office bought it as string for parcels.

The Saints, back in the 1980s, did not seem to have much work, not even tourism to make a living from. The mail ship came through maybe once a month but the only visitors were yachties enjoying a mid-Atlantic respite.

A complete ethnic cocktail, the Saints themselves had only arrived there in the mists of time as colonial workers and lived principally on the income sent home by those islanders who found jobs at the Ascension Island airbase.

On one level this was an idyllic tropical island stuck in a time warp. But such images are shallow and meaningless unless backed by work and not long ago the grant from Britain was cut from about $46 million to about $40 million a year.

To make up for the shortfall the island's government has had to dip into its reserves but there is still a shortage of teachers.

Now two members of the island's Executive Council have resigned and there has even been a small, albeit unprecedented demonstration outside the governor's office and a police van set on fire. Why the resonance with Hong Kong? The answer lies in the fact that until the 1981 Immigration Act the Saints could come to work in Britain, where like migrant communities around the world they could send money home to their families.

But with that act so their right to work in Britain ended and now very few have managed to gain work permits.

The fear behind the 1981 act was that the presence of the Saints may have created a precedent for Hong Kong people to come to Britain. So the tiny island, whose hinterland is the empty Atlantic rather than China, suffered and suffers still.

In response, Britain has just announced a generous aid package, a higher amount per head than for any other colony.

But like the people of Hong Kong the Saints are hard working, or at least potentially so. They no more like handouts than would the people of Hong Kong. Instead they want the right to work in Britain reinstalled.

Unlike the people of Hong Kong they desperately want to retain their links with the crown.

On my visit I witnessed the sight of the governor falling into the sea when he lost his grip on the jetty rope as he came ashore from a boat. It was the funniest spectacle the Saints had seen in years and a considerable loss of face for local colonial authority.

In a year when Britain is shedding its last large colonial responsibility it is not asking for much to make a special case out for a tiny island, that had it not been for colonialism, would have been uninhabited anyway.