After The Luce Report

Mauritius Times 60 Years

By Peter Ibbotson

How many unemployed are there in Mauritius? Oh, about two thousand. That is what the Labour Department has solemnly been assuring questioners for years. Why, it’s only a few months since the House of Commons heard, at Question Time, that unemployment in Mauritius was at that figure. Now, however, along comes Mr Luce to lift the lid and reveal, Pandora-like, the horrid truth about the ills which beset the island’s economy.

Let us recapitulate Mr Luce’s findings regarding employment: population of Mauritius in March 1958, 600,724, of whom those aged 14 and over numbered 336,618. Of these potentially employable persons, only 205,280 were economically active: say 61%. Those who worked did so, on average, for 37 hours a week and on 23 days out of each 30.

What, JN Roy has asked, does all this mean? “It means that only 205,280 people work at the rate of 23 days to feed 600,724 people during 30 days. This position of employment is among the worst in the world. It means that 4,721,440 workdays supply 18,021,720 food-days.”

31,000 out of work is Mr Luce’s figure — higher than any unofficial estimate or elsewhere. And no unemployment benefit or other form of social assistance for those unfortunates, except what they can get from the Public Assistance Department (PAD) as public assistance. And we know only too well how people are sometimes treated by the PAD when they go along to ask for relief. Far too often among the lower officials of the PAD (and for that matter of other departments) do we find a complete lack of sympathy, an absence of the milk of human kindness, when dealing with the problems of poverty-stricken wives and labourers. The insolence of the minor officer, the brusqueness of the pettily uninformed — these are the hallmarks of the ill-disposed minor official who is brusque to the workers because he would like to feel more securely separate from them. He knows he is but little separate, and wishes to avoid dropping back. Yet to the middle-class that same brusque official is ingratiating and deferential; but this very deference cloaks an animosity: the official would like to be one of them but realises he is not.

What can be done to help this army of out-of-works? Monetary assistance would help them to keep body and soul together; but alone, financial help is not enough. The out-of-works want work. It is as simple as that. Unfortunately, the solution is not so simple; where is the work to come from? If the five-year-plan is pushed ahead with all speed, there may well be some amelioration in the numbers of unemployed; but one doubts whether the acceleration of the five-year plan will do more than just keep pace with the rate of population growth. Emigration is put forward as just another solution; one is rather tired of this perennial panacea of all economic ills. Where would the people emigrate to?

And who would emigrate? Madagascar has the land, Mauritius has the people — but Madagascar is French and ill-disposed to Mauritian immigration. (The ill-disposition stems from the French authorities not from the Malgaches themselves.)

If Madagascar were a part of the British Commonwealth, a free flow of people between it and Mauritius could follow; but there is little prospect of Madagascar passing from French imperialism. Brazil has been suggested; and there is no colour bar in Brazil. There is, too, a very racially-mixed population; the Brazilians being (like the Tahitians and Hawaiians) living rebuttal of the illogical and emotional claim that intermarriage of races leads to racial degeneration. But would the Brazilian authorities accept an influx of Mauritians? If they did, they would want only the young, strong and economically active Mauritian men; they would not really be interested in older (perhaps economically liabilities) people. So, Mauritius would be denuded of the best of the younger generation and would develop an unbalanced demography — although I will admit that, in view of the present composition of the population (by age), Mauritius could afford to lose without noticing the lack a good number of young persons.

What of other parts of the Commonwealth? Canada is undergoing a recession. Australia is ready to admit the rag-tag and bobtail of central Europe and Germany, but has a colour bar against immigrants from India, Mauritius, etc. Perhaps if a Labour Government were in power in Australia, we might see this colour bar removed; at least we could bring more moral pressure to bear on a Labour Government than we can on a Tory Government (the Tories, like the Parti Mauricien, don’t respond to a moral approach: they respond only to two stimuli: money and pressure).

British Guiana has vast areas underdeveloped and underpopulated, and would be prepared to take immigrants (from Mauritius, Dr Jagan has told me, if there were appropriate discussions and agreements between the two governments concerned) providing that first the country were in a more economically sound condition; but the refusal of the Colonial Office last July to grant British Guiana sufficient funds for development is jeopardising the economic stability of the colony. So, for the moment prospects of emigration to British Guiana are remote.

Of course, we might be able to do something to prevent the alarming rise in the population; which has gone up by 20% in six years. We could have an energetic island-wide campaign in favour of family planning, to prevent the rate of population growth becoming too high. But the Government is afraid of family planning. It registers the local Family Planning Association but gives it no support; yet that Association is doing as much for the economic future of Mauritius as all the five-year-plans and sugar estates put together. One of the factors which will affect the future of Mauritius is the rate of population growth; and the FPA is the only organisation concerned to check it. The current issue of the IPPF’s News of Population and Birth Control has a news paragraph about Mauritius:

“The island’s first family planning clinic was opened at Piton on May 10th… Among those present were the Minister of Health, the Hon Guy Forget, and Mrs Forget. Each branch, of which there are already 22, has a fully organised committee and at every place where a new branch is to be started Dr Teelock first speaks of the methods and advantages of family planning. Nearly 5,000 persons have been addressed at these meetings… The Association, which has a subscribing membership of a thousand, is concerned at all costs to avoid conflict with religious organisations. It is eager to provide all necessary family planning services to those who have no religious objections…”

If Hon. Forget can attend the opening of a family planning clinic, thus giving the impression that he is in favour of them, cannot he use his influence to get, if not  Government-sponsored clinics, at least a financial subvention for the Association? There are many colonies where government aid is forthcoming, because the local government realizes that economic stability in countries which are producers of primary products (e.g., sugar) rests on not letting the population increase too rapidly and too much, especially if the area of the country is limited (e.g., Barbados, Hong-Kong, Trinidad). In Hong-Kong, by the way, the Jockey Club is a very generous supporter of the local FPA. — verbum sat sapienti.

Mr Luce has lifted the lid off the poverty of even those workers who are in employment. Their wages are not enough, he declares; and he wants an enquiry into the sum of money necessary for a labourer to feed and clothe and shelter his family decently.

In short, he wants to see, what we of the Mauritius Times have campaigned for consistently and unceasingly: a tolerable minimum standard of civilised living for all. And that, by the way, is the aim of the socialist, not of any other politician. The Parti Mauricien is concerned with what the rich can get and can hold on to. The other parties are principally concerned with what the party leaders can get for themselves. But the Labour Party – it alone is concerned to try and get a better life for all.

The truth about Mauritius today is, of course, that there are two Mauritiuses. There is the Mauritius of the rich and the Mauritius of the poor. And for years the rich has been growing richer while the poor have been growing poorer. Union of September 1958 was right to draw attention yet again to what I (and others) have often tried to hammer home: Les dividendes payés par les companies sucrières passèrent de 95 millions en 1952 à 256 millions en 1956, mais les gages restèrent les mêmes.

As one of the greatest of English poets, Shelley, put it 150 years ago:

‘Have ye leisure, comfort, calm,

Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm?

Or what is it ye buy so dear

With your pain and with your fear?

The seed ye sow, another reaps;

The wealth ye find, another keeps…

And in Mauritius the wealth of the tiny minority who control the island’s economic destiny (and they will control the island’s political destiny. I am afraid, unless the Labour and Trade Union movement get together better and put the island’s welfare in front of the petty advancement of a few trade union leaders) derives from the labour of the many. And not just the labour of the many, but the sweated labour of the many. Dividends soar; wages remain steady or stagger slowly up, lagging always sadly behind the cost of living and repeated increases in the price of essentials such as rice and tea.

Mr Luce’s report is a long overdue exposure of conditions in a colony which is, officially, prosperous. It is a shameful condemnation of colonialism. It is a thorough (though not meant as such) condemnation of capitalism and private ownership. It is a sad commentary on the lack of vigour of the local trade unions and Labour Party. And the future? A planned population policy is needed. So is urgent implementation of the five-year-plan. So, implementation of the cement project; the cost is immaterial beside the relief in human misery it will provide.

But on the wider issue, it is clear from Mr Luce’s remarks that labourers’ wages must be fixed by a Board; and that private enterprise having failed in Mauritius, the only alternative is to try public ownership of the land and all means of production.

5th Year – No 219
Friday 17th October, 1958

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