Aren’t We Are All Labourers?

As we are celebrating International Labour Day today, 1st May, and since it’s a public holiday in many countries, I thought I’d look up the definition of ‘labour’. This is what I came up with:

Concise Oxford dictionary: a) physical or mental work; exertion; toil b) such work considered as supplying the needs of a community; c) workers, esp. manual, considered as a class or political force.

Cambridge Advanced Learners’ Dictionary: to do something slowly or with great physical or mental effort.

I have italicized the ‘mental’ deliberately: if we agree to get rid of our prejudices, and do not quibble about the semantics, then surely there should be no controversy let alone shame in accepting that we are all labourers? This sends me to what I read several years ago, it was in Newsweek magazine I think, about an exchange between President Ronald Reagan and the surgeon on emergency duty who was wheeling him to the operation theatre when he was shot in the chest. With a courageous touch of humour even as he lay on the trolley and his life hung in the balance, the President said to the doctor; ‘I hope that you are a Republican?’ and the surgeon replied, ‘Mr President, tonight we are all Republicans!’

Productivity = labour

And so we all toil, don’t we, whether it’s in an office at the computer – these days well beyond ‘normal’ office hours – or at the frontline in the ‘field’ or actual fields of earth, so as to increase productivity which, after all is said and done, is but for the ‘needs of the community.’ And the only concern of the employer. For, whether it is the public or private sector, as far as the employer is concerned, the employee is there to labour and produce results or meet targets. In the lower levels of the hierarchy there is overtime, a necessity for many employees to top up their basic salaries, and at the highest levels – where the work is more mental in nature — with bigger packages extended hours are an implicit part of the contract and there is no overtime.

On the other hand, on Labour Day, all employees are off isn’t it, whether they do mental or physical work – except, naturally, those who have to be on duty in the essential services. If labour was restricted to manual work, then strictly speaking those who do only mental work, sitting at a desk or computer console, ought not to enjoy the benefit of being off on that day isn’t it?

And hence we speak of the dignity of labour, or the nobility of work: that all work is noble is a truism that we often tend to forget in the hurly burly of daily life. But a moment’s reflection – and which needs to be done more regularly – will make us realise how important in our day-to-day lives are those who are assigned to do menial work.

The history of Labour Day starts with the struggle of manual workers to improve their working and living conditions, and such improvements to be secured as their right. It had to be a mass movement because they faced the power of their employers, whether these were private ones or the government. Hence the emergence of unions which could mobilize workers for collective action in the form of representations to the employer, with public protests or industrial action including the right to strike as an extreme resort, and which may at times result in violence. And thus too the setting up of negotiating mechanisms which over time acquired a life of their own. Employer-employee tension will be an ever present reality in the world of work, and as we all know it has led to all sectors forming unions, not only manual workers as was the case at the beginning.

Encounters of the industrial kind…

I first encountered the phenomenon when I was a junior doctor in the UK. I was there to do my specialist studies, on which I focused, with no interest then in union matters even where the medical profession was concerned. After all, I wasn’t going to stay on, and trusted the British Medical Association to safeguard the interests of its members. One morning, though, as I reached the operating theatre, I saw my boss fuming and the matron trying to calm him down: the attendants had declared industrial action and there was no one to bring the patients due for operation from the wards to the theatre. It seems there were some negotiations going on between the administration and the union of attendants.

After a while, however, the wait and the lull became unbearable for my boss, who was itching to get on with the surgery. ‘Come on,’ he told me, ‘let’s roll up our sleeves and go get the first patient!’ And so we did – it wasn’t such a big deal, after all, to push the trolley with my boss Mr Graham Bird leading from the front and I at the back. As the bemused nursing officers looked on, we helped the patient to move from the bed on to the trolley and then back we went to the theatre. By then, Sister had coaxed her staff to pitch in and as Mr Bird and I went to change they took over, taking the trolley to the operating room and shifting him to the operating table.

Shortly after returning to Mauritius in 1972 on completion of undergraduate medical studies, I joined the only doctor’s union then existing, the Government Medical and Dental Officers Association (GMDOA). In due course I participated in the elections to the Executive Committee and upon being elected took up the post of treasurer, continuing for the next few years until I left for my specialist studies in January 1976. And when I came back in 1980, still bitten by the union bug I renewed my engagement with the GMDOA in 1981, this time as secretary.

Among other things we negotiated for in the 1970s was the payment of a night duty allowance for doctors. It was initially Rs 50 per night. I do not remember whether there was a higher rate for weekends and public holidays, but whatever came afterwards had of course to be toughly negotiated for: in matters of workers’ benefits, nothing comes on a silver platter!

Special advisers

There are many moments, episodes and incidents to remember, but one that marked me the most was the issue of the impending appointment of a special adviser in 1974 or 1975 by the minister, Harold Walter. The name of the specialist was not officially mentioned, but at the GMDOA we had got wind of it. We convened a special meeting of the GMDOA, which was held in the doctor’s mess at the Victoria Hospital (where all our union meetings used to take place). It was packed to overflowing, many senior colleagues could only find standing place.

After the opening remarks by the president and the secretary respectively, I led the charge as it were, having been designated to do so. I did not mention the name of Dr Vel Pillay, who was the one to be appointed as special adviser. But after I sat down, he rose and began by identifying himself as the ‘enemy’ targeted, and in an extraordinary soliloquy fired his salvo, defending his case and the idea of special adviser.

To cut a long story short, the GMDOA didn’t bite, and we went on to declare industrial action after a confrontation with a fuming and booming Sir Harold Walter in his office at the ministry in its old building at Edith Cavell Street. The government’s irritation was all the more acute since our lawyer was Gaetan Duval, whose party had by then split from the government. There was a major reason for having him as our legal adviser: the GMDOA was an impoverished union and did not have the kind of money to pay the legal fees. But we were affiliated with the Federation of Civil Service Unions – brothers-in-arms kind of! – and Gaetan Duval was its lawyer. The truth be told, though, we did feel a malin plaisir at having a political adversary of the government as our lawyer – never mind that allegiances keep shifting! I must point out, though, that we eventually extended the list of grievances to beyond the special adviser issue.

On a personal level, this story had a nice ending, as I and Vel became good friends afterwards. We met a number of times at a common friend’s place and had an opportunity to socialize. Subsequently we were together as members of the Council of the University of Mauritius and in various forums. Age had mellowed us, and we shared similar views on a number of educational and social issues dear to us. When he passed a few years ago, I felt I owed him a homage, which could only be titled: ‘From Adversary to Friend.’

In 1981 the GMDOA led another industrial action, supported by the two other doctors’ unions, again on the issue of special advisers – two this time – and we actually went on strike. We suffered from a cut of two days of our pay, which represented a significant chunk of the salary in those days of the devaluated rupee. All that I will say at this stage is that nothing came about in the specialties in which these advisers were inducted, namely neurology and urology. For the GMDOA, this was unnecessary acrimony and a waste of public funds.

Oh! To be a unionist!

Union work is demanding and ungrateful. There are many facets of unions, from the issues to be canvassed and the strategies and tactics to be adopted, to electioneering for the executive committee and the designations to sub-committees, to the clash and rivalries among personalities or factions, to betrayals and union-politician nexus – and so on!

As far as their demands are concerned, although generally speaking they are well motivated, sometimes extremist and rigid posturings have to be tempered by more flexibility on the part of both employer and employee, if we are genuinely concerned about the national interest. Keeping the larger picture in mind is always vital to maintain peace and stability in society, and that larger picture must be a shared one. Employers, whether government or private often tend to hide facts and figures, and more transparency on both sides of the divide can go a long way to avoid confrontation.

There are many more stories to be told of course, for they form part of our history, but this should enough to whet the appetite.


* Published in print edition on 1  May  2015

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