By Nita Chicooree-Mercier
In light of hard times ahead and state aid to all and sundry, shouldn’t the government backpedal on its decision to come to the rescue of Big Business? And instead set itself the task of envisaging deep reforms in its fiscal policy which have hitherto feathered the golden nests of the most fortunate people, creating huge disparities within our society at the expense of other segments of the population who have merely been cogs in the machinery of wealth accumulation for decades. Big business be it in the hotel industry, banking and manufacturing sectors, rentiers and speculators in real estate or in the sugar industry, etc., have filled their pockets for years by being undertaxed.
Wildcat capitalism is the iron god of corporate business. Big wigs have been in the frontline in the race to be the first to seize new opportunities and lay their hands on emerging sectors. 2003 opened a new era of golden opportunities for real estate sharks and rent collectors inaugurated with the blessing of the PMO. Up to now no one has proposed any serious study on the skyrocketing price of lands entailed by the development of luxury property, and the strain and stress on the average Mauritian who plans to purchase a plot of land for housing purposes. Successive governments endorsed the real estate property bonanza.
Apart from a few trade unionists and this paper, others kept mum. Do not expect the so-called mainstream media to take on banks for the high rate of interest charged on loans while rates went down to 2% in France, for instance, after the 2008 crisis. Because they are part of big business. Occasionally a few lines in newspapers on the destitute and homeless present them as victims of the State’s failure to provide decent living conditions to the most needy. An inquiry into the struggles and woes of hardworking average citizens to obtain a bank loan with a fair rate of interest to buy a plot of land or build a house is most likely to land journalists in big trouble. Fairness is not the criteria which guides the banking system, the basis of which was founded on compensation money obtained for 300 years of slavery – wealth amassed thanks to free labour. Today customer service is a negligible part of the more lucrative businesses banks invest in.
The press is much more comfortable sitting on the fence with bows and arrows opposite Parliament and taking aim at their favourite targets. A string of spokespersons from every nook of the island, economists and all are lecturing on the best solutions to sail through the tempest-tossed seas and dispel the gathering clouds around the clipped wings of the national carrier. The crash in the making was worsened by open air space policy, which did not lower fares for citizens as expected, but gave generous packages to the hotel industry, and was burdened by undue political meddling in the management for decades, ill-advised appointments and allegations of corruption and mismanagement, exorbitant packages to board members and consultants, and the summum of incompetency in recent years. It is the hour of reckoning for the national airline. Decision makers cannot walk away from it.
The way to economic take-off
A plethora of improvised economists and other pen-pushers are coming forward with a list of bright ideas for the long overhaul. Easier said than done from their current comfort zone, especially when they are not at the helm of the country’s affairs. None had ever envisaged the possibility of providing minimum wages to improve the living conditions of workers at the lowest rung for the last two decades.
Public funds to big business? What is the logic behind the decision to pay half of employees’ salaries? Only a few years ago they were squeezing the juice out of their employees, barely paying them Rs 7000 monthly for long hours six days a week. Huge fortunes empower these companies to sprawl around the island. Right now customers queue up like beggars in front of all those supermarkets to buy essential items, food and other stuff. They are pouring fortunes into the coffers of big business. And to top it all, the government adds a few hundred millions drawn out of public funds on the heap of fortunes. Conversely, the Rs 5000 thrown to crowds of self-employed are derisory.
Cuts in public budget, targeting state expenses of top public administration and downsizing of public service is generally a right-wing position in the West. The other pet craze that resurfaces whenever the economy goes into fits is taxation of the super rich. Over here, the big business of private media naturally targets public expenses from top to bottom. Temporary freeze of ministers’ allowances is a short-term gain. The public sector has been a source of recruitment and a factor of stability in quite a number of small islands with limited resources for economic expansion.
Overall the public service has delivered fairly well for decades notwithstanding fault lines, overstaffed departments, and criticism from the press tainted by other undertones than efficiency. As for the Rs 200,000 monthly ministerial salary, it is not a jackpot, if anything, if one were to consider the responsibility for a whole sector lying on their shoulders.
Fiscal reform needed
The point is it that the stars and tax laws have been favourable to multimillionaires in various sectors for decades. Feathering their nests with public funds is not the right option.
A fiscal reform to raise taxes on corporate business might meet with a flat ‘No No No’. So was the answer in 1942 when the government under British supervision suggested to modify the then agricultural policy and reduce dependence on sugar. ‘No No No’ was also the answer to a request for lands to build houses for the most affected segments of the population during cyclone Carol in 1960, a refusal which led to the creation of cités in the suburbs of Port-Louis. Same cry-baby protest in 2018 to compensate laid-off workers of a sugar property. Now with other flourishing modern businesses, it is time to enact new fiscal laws to tax the wealthiest to help the country brace for hard times ahead.
* Published in print edition on 28 April 2020
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