Will Trade Unions Gain back their Credentials?

Joint Negotiating Panel vs Sugar industry’s Elusive Agent

By Anil Gujadhur

Factors like loss of jobs and high rates of unemployment in several countries in the wake of the international economic crisis have had the effect of holding down trade union action. But these factors are not alone towards explaining the relative loss of activism of unions in past years. The media has been manipulated as a communication tool by employers, painting catastrophic situations that would be faced by enterprises. The consequence has been that protest against worker exploitation has remained subdued.

In the rich countries, politics has even set up local workers against foreign workers, which is what is meant when politicians in America and certain other western countries and workers’ unions, along with them, have taken the cudgel against the so-called “export” of their local jobs to developing countries through outsourcing. Classic tools have been employed accordingly to keep workers intimidated and antagonised against each other by dividing them so as to suppress protest against oppression of workers the world over.

Many western governments have advocated extremist right wing policies for “reforming” the labour market. We have seen that, under the impulsion of capitalist lobbies like the World Bank and the IMF, even Mauritius has endorsed labour laws in recent years the effect of which has been to gag workers. While we are not in favour of destroying the very economic springs of the country, by having recourse to abusive trade union action as it happened over here in the 1970s, there was a realistic balance to be struck between workers’ rights and ensuring a predictable rule of the law in matters of industrial relations.

Employment Relations Act 2007

There was no need, in a small economy like that of Mauritius, to adopt the same norms of easy “hiring and firing” as what obtains in big rich capitalist countries. There was no need enact legislations like the Employment Relations Act 2007, having clauses which favour an increase in the scale of casually employed labour. In the rich countries, casually employed labour usually moves from one place to another in quest of better remuneration and improved working conditions. Over there, it is common for workers to go about from one workplace to another under contracts, the effect of which is to turn over workers at a rapid pace across industries, backed by solid social protection during the transition phase.

That kind of scope does not prevail in an environment like Mauritius. The consequence is that workers over here can be made to work for a pittance as their range of choice between jobs is severely limited. Interested lobbies frequently put down lack of job prospects to a so-called “skills mismatch” explaining away why so many young job seekers fail to find a place on the labour market. There may be some element of truth in the explanation but it is not all. We are simply not able to grow our production scope far enough to secure a wider range of employability. The kind of investment that was induced by the so-called “reforms” to give a boost to economic investment ended up bringing up not the sort of productive enterprises we were and still need to grow our scope of production.

It created rather the opportunity for inflow of investments into real estate, which became the new line of “production” after sugar, trade, tourism, construction, finance, Freeport and ICT. This kind of real estate investment does not go in the direction of acting as a job multiplier and creator of national wealth on the local labour market. Even where investment came into more productive lines, such as education and healthcare, it saw its progress blocked by our poor cost-competitiveness and limited market access. We were not able to tap the expected foreign demand for such services which require a reputation for the highest quality at comparatively lower prices than elsewhere.

Situations of persistent labour market constraints of this sort put workers at a serious disadvantage when negotiating conditions of service and when involved in the wage bargaining process. Trade unions have generally remained passive in Mauritius or they have hit against the limits laid down by law when contemplating taking concrete action to improve the lot of workers. This explains why, despite a spate of sustained price increases of basic goods and services seriously eroding workers’ purchasing power in the recent period, there has been little by way of worker protest here against the worsening situation.

While protests have been staged in the rich countries in particular on behalf of the oppressed “99%” in movements like “Occupy Wall Street”, nothing of the sort has profiled out in Mauritius. As a result, the already wide gap between the remunerations of those few at the top of hierarchies and the mass at the bottom of the ladder has increased over time, disguised where necessary in different forms of pay-outs in favour of those at the top. This is what neo-liberal approaches to regulating the labour market have yielded in practice. It was necessary not to allow the balance to be tilted too much to one side and putting the worker in a perpetually precarious mode.

Gagging down workers’ vindications for redress

Events last week and continuing at present tend to show that a point has been reached where tricks used by employers to always stay at the top may be running out of steam. It is the Joint Negotiating Panel (JNP, representing the major unions of artisans and other lower grade workers of the Sugar Industry (SI)) that has drawn attention to the one-sidedness of the prevailing framework that has been employed by the SI to gag down workers’ vindications for redress.

The SI which has been employing its constitutive body called the Mauritius Sugar Producers Association (MSPA) to represent it in various forums, decided that it will not mandate the MSPA this time to represent it in the current industrial dispute between JNP and the SI, although the MSPA had been representing it in the same respect in identical forums so far, notably in country-wide annual tripartite wage negotiations. In practice, this meant that workers’ unions would be forced to discuss the issues they have with employers at a disaggregated level with each employer and not in a collective wage bargaining process for the SI as a whole.

The further implication of the current attitude adopted by the SI would be to cause a spiralling down of conditions of service and remunerations towards the least efficient employers’ capacity; it follows that all the other employers would gravitate towards this rock-bottom level eventually. By de-consolidating the workers’ industrial dispute, workers will be led to pick up the worst lot available in a country that has, on the other hand, liberally allowed the SI to consolidate itself with a view to ensuring its future viability and to reap better economies of scale. Is this one-sided equation Corporate Social Responsibility at its best? We doubt it.

Before that, the MSPA had already managed to hang up a score of unsettled issues from the SI unions in the Supreme Court, taking them out of the agenda of the National Remuneration Board to which such matters are routinely referred for decisions. The same MSPA acting unilaterally and pre-emptively, and as collective representative of SI employers, successfully obtained from the Employment Relations Tribunal an injunction to prevent the JNP from taking a secret ballot among workers as to whether they were in favour of going for a general strike in the sugar industry at end of August/early September in the midst of the on-going sugar cane harvest. One could have said that it is normal for employers to oppose workers’ vindications. What is striking however is that the same unit (MSPA) which has acted to thwart workers’ actions in certain respects relating to their rights and actions, is disempowering itself when it comes to discussing compensations of workers with the trade unions.

The sugar industry’s elusive agent: MSPA

This imbalance in terms of representation of selective issues by the MSPA should have caught the eyes of any objective observer. All this time, the JNP has been struggling against a Minister who has been busy defending the legal dispositions governing workers’ vindications in the face of an elusive agent of the SI (MSPA) acting to thwart by all the means at its disposal, the JNP from taking action to make its point heard. It is good enough that at this late hour, political parties are awakening timidly to the unfairness of the situation created by the SI’s selective mandating of the MSPA. In a not so distant past, such unfairness would have been long owned up by social and political forces of the country as a just cause. What has changed since then that right reasonable demands of unions are receiving this late attention?

The coming into force of a so-called law to make for “flexibility” in the labour market must have been one of those considerations for tardy acknowledgement of the workers’ plight in the current contention. This law is supposed to encourage investment and, hence, to make for the creation of more jobs. No such thing has happened in fact. Investments in IRS have not come because the labour market has been tightened around with legislation of the sort. The low tax regime has more to do with it. It has besides not been established that in environments like that of Mauritius, those sophistries of labour market regulation end up yielding more jobs on the market.

All that was required was a framework for real collaboration between the two sides and this called for broad-mindedness and fair negotiation on the sides of employers and employees. If instead, the image projected of our body of laws and legal setup is that they can become a device to squeeze out as much as possible from workers, even ostracize them from taking corrective action in their favour, the law itself required to be made more humane by preventing anyone of the concerned parties from cutting corners for selfish advancement. As in the days of glory of Labour, trade unions may, nevertheless and despite the pressures they are put under, show that they could be trustworthy partners in development. A lot of people who assume that they would not act responsibly would be discomfited. Let’s hope good sense will finally prevail.

* Published in print edition on 10 August 2012

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