Covid-19 Act & Workers Rights Act: So un-Mauritian!
Is it fair and normal that a politician or a bureaucrat should sit in an office and decide that trade unions should not have the right to strike or laws should be applied retroactively?
“A brief look at the law shows that it deprives workers of a fair wage, fair working conditions, reduces wages, overtime pay and annual leave and other paid annual leave. In addition, it deprives workers of their collective rights in their trade unions besides facilitating the termination of employment and other contractual obligations between the employer and his employees… It is so un-Mauritian that it looks more like a copy/paste legislation from an authoritarian regime…”
By Sada Reddi
My personal experience as an education officer at John Kennedy College during the student unrest of May ’75 has taught many of us one important lesson. Even when students, staff and even school managers have different interests and come from different classes, solidarity and some ideological commitment can bring people together, even in an uncoordinated manner, to fight for a common cause and win. Such a lesson of unity is most relevant at this hour when workers, the unemployed and the population are being driven to the wall.
We may not have a near sacred institution like the UK’s National Health Service, which one politician has likened to something like a religion for the British with its staff members priding themselves of forming part of a priesthood. But Mauritians do view their jobs and their rights as workers as something sacred in our democracy. We have been fighting for more than a hundred years to secure these rights and are still struggling to get the right to work as one of the fundamental and elemental human rights of a free citizenship in our constitution.
When these rights are undermined and abolished altogether, one can understand the anger, fear and frustration which grip all workers and their families in the country, and at the same time the determination to fight to the finish to safeguard their jobs and their rights. It is a matter of survival and struggle for the human dignity for our population.
When a law under the cover of public health deprives workers of their rights in the most arbitrary manner one can think of, it is neither modern nor a piece of reform, if by reform we mean an improvement in workers’ conditions. Such a law is archaic, and the insecurity and rightlessness it brings in its wake is reminiscent of the notorious Code Noir of the 18th century.
A brief look at the law shows that it deprives workers of a fair wage, fair working conditions, reduces wages, overtime pay and annual leave and other paid annual leave. In addition, it deprives workers of their collective rights in their trade unions besides facilitating the termination of employment and other contractual obligations between the employer and his employees. It criminalizes behaviour, eliminates acquired rights and allows employers to extract the maximum labour as they wish. It is so un-Mauritian that it looks more like a copy/paste legislation from an authoritarian regime.
A saving grace for the workers is the mediocrity of our bureaucrats and politicians who passed these laws to clamp down on the population. The flaws in these laws and their subtle and not so subtle violation of workers’ rights will certainly come for scrutiny from legal experts, trade unionists, and the workers themselves for they know best where the shoe pinches. Our hope is that trade unionists and their lawyers will put up a strong defence in the courts of law to seek redress.
One thing that is certain is the way the state and its bureaucrats operate. They will always take a synoptic and myopic view of a situation, at the risk of oversimplification to make the population gullible so as to better manipulate it. In this process, their attempt at passing a blanket law to cover everything is so untidy, unwieldy and devoid of commonsense that they have already lost the battle of public opinion and undermined their own legitimacy and that of the law. It is like an officer acting smart and switching off a camera to cover up a horrific brutality but leaves evidence that uncovers his own participation as an accomplice.
Laying off of a worker instead of protecting jobs, erasing workers’ rights just by the stroke of a pen reflect both a reprehensible and a callous attitude of the state and its lackeys. One cannot accept that a country is governed in the sole interests of a plutocracy. One can also expect that their plutocrats and their accomplices will always seek to justify their action by some flimsy arguments, exaggerating some threats and resorting to blackmail to undermine the unity of the workers and the population. These are old tricks of an obsolete past which the plutocrats would like to revive at their own risks. A few of them, politicians and employers, at least know that these arguments in any situation are morally indefensible and have tried to hammer in some commonsense but to no avail.
The response of workers and trade unionists by building unity through a consortium of trade unions, irrespective of ideological differences, is a healthy first step in this situation. One knows too well that workers and employees belong to different economic and social groups, and all too often such differences can be divisive, and employers and state bureaucrats will play on such differences. Employers will only shout victory if they succeed in this policy of divide and rule, and it is on this strategy that they will focus all their efforts.
At no time in our history do we need more than ever the unity of the whole labour force and the support of the population. Permanent communication among workers, trade unionists and a consensual approach on the priorities of the moment are essential so that workers and trade unionists speak with one voice for they also represent the voice of the nation.
It is up to workers and trade unionists to draw their priorities. Perhaps the priority number one is to save jobs and protect the rights of workers. Over and above creative solutions to be proposed in different sectors, there should be a framework within which workers and trade unionist must agree to operate.
Is it fair and normal that a politician or a bureaucrat should sit in an office and decide that trade unions should not have the right to strike or laws should be applied retroactively? These authoritarian instincts are displayed in other countries but not in a democracy. We all have known that on many occasions, the right to strike has always been undermined in one way or another during the colonial and post colonial period — such as resorting to a cooling off period before a strike takes place or even a legal strike being declared illegal by a minister — but never has the right to strike been undermined to such an extent.
No one can stand aloof and be a bystander when the rights of 500,000 workers are removed and democracy threatened. Make no mistake, there is going to be a long struggle to restore our rights and a struggle that has to be waged on all fronts in the courts of law, at the negotiating table, in the National Assembly and ultimately on the ground. We all know that trade unionists and workers will rise up to the challenge and benefit from the support of the population across the country and across the political divide.
At this critical time, the struggle for jobs and income security and workers’ rights and for a healthy democracy is a legitimate struggle. At this hour, the words of Swami Vivekananda ‘Arise, Awake and stop not till the goal is reached’ are very pertinent. Like all struggles, they are not only for the present but also for the future generations and the future of our democracy.
* Published in print edition on 29 May 2020
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