In the late 19th century, cargo ships between Kuching and Singapore formed Sarawak’s main connection to the wider world. Godowns (warehouses) and wharves dotted the bank of the Sarawak River; sun-parched workers toiled at the edge of land and water. These labourers came to be called coolies, from Malay kuli.
Wharf workers organised themselves into small crews, each with a leader who arranged work. Different crews often squabbled or fought over jobs. In 1948, the Kuching Wharf Labourers’ Union was established to better coordinate work between wharf workers. The union also campaigned for workers’ benefits such as overtime pay and poverty assistance.
The union’s achievements gained the trust and support of wharf workers, who agreed to contribute their overtime pay to the union’s funds. The Wharf and Port Labourers Building at No. 22 Carpenter Street, acquired by the union in 1953, stands as a witness to the workers’ collective endeavour.