The goal is still far and the road as rough
Many of the present generation are not aware of the mighty battles fought against large sugar estate owners in the colonial days to give small planters and workers of the large Sugar Industry (SI) establishments their dues. Those were the days when the economy was undiversified and sugar was the mainstay of the entire population’s well-being.
Today, sugar accounts for a much smaller part of the economy of Mauritius, both as regards its contribution to national product and to providing employment. Nevertheless, it remains a citadel of a certain type of behaviour that has privileged the few against the many over so many centuries. The current stand-off between trade unions, on the one side, and representatives of the SI, on the other, is a replay of how owners of large sugar estates and factories have continuously subdued the population by having recourse to various stratagems.
The Mauritius Times has the merit of having been a force in the 1960s campaigning successfully for the establishment of the Balogh Commission, one of the grievances of those days being allegations of cheating on the weights of cane delivered by small planters to the sugar mills. The other main one was the allocation in all fairness to the small planters of the by-products of sugar.
The tension created currently by the MSPA in its recent stand-off against the unions is a stark reminder of the classic devices resorted to by the SI to paralyse those whose livelihood depends on it. It pleads absent when most it is called to account. It takes away all it can only to deny others a fair share of the cake. It uses its diversification to keep workers out of the enormous advantages being reaped from this diversification . It takes advantage of tax reliefs granted by taxpayers (i.e., the government) to flourish its highly profitable incursions into more lucrative businesses like energy production under cast-iron contracts conceded by governments, but it chooses to refuse even a dialogue to workers’ representatives, except by undermining their fundamental liberty to go on strike if their demands are not met.
It knows how to carve out the best for itself, relegating all other stakeholders who’ve been part and parcel of the maturing enterprise out of the equation. This mindset has prevailed all along since the days sugar production has been taking place in the country. It is enduring in a different shade to this day inasmuch as it is avoiding giving even a fair hearing to the demands of its workers by using to its advantage the very laws and court systems which the representatives of the people have voted in order to incentivize more investment, not repression of workers.
The number of workers involved in the SI may have diminished today just as the key role the SI has played dominantly in the economy. The issues and the artifice employed to keep down workers are no different however from the mischievousness that has characterized the SI historically. This is because the key resource, available land, is in the hands of the principal owners of the SI. Governments have abstained in the name of democracy from rationalising the efficient use of the land resource and respected the word given not to have recourse to nationalisation.
It goes to our credit that, despite the negativity posted by the large sugar companies (plantation and milling) when it comes to allocation of a limited resource like land, governments have respected their part of the deal. The large sugar companies have gone on squeezing all they could to always have the upper hand. They have always been allergic to fair sharing of gains. They have delayed to the extent they could giving their dues to workers but they haven’t delayed at all to get the laws changed to float up their highly lucrative IRS so as not to have to give back to the Treasury part of their huge capital gains on real estate development. No one else has benefited from as large scale a tax relief on this item as the SI.
We are surely not optimizing our land resource. This will have telling consequences for our future generations. The government could have employed all the skills it has to re-orientate the use of land, the scarcest resource we have, to guarantee that future generations are not deprived altogether and that a feasible amount of food security is achieved before too much land is converted to slabs of concrete. This is in the realm of the possible. It is exactly what entrepreneurs experimenting with the help of Singapore knowhow are demonstrating in the case of Vita Rice. Many more activities could have been pursued in this direction.
The road has however been rough for numerous generations engaged with the SI. Recent events show that nothing has really changed: a bag of stratagems is always available to the SI to keep to the strict minimum whatever “concessions” it may be forced to make to the others. Then, was it in vain that so many generations past have given it the fight for so long to make sure that it keeps workers in as weak a position as possible? Has the historical fight been in vain? If so, we are quite far from the goal we had been envisioning for the broader members of the population at the end of the day.
* Published in print edition on 17 August 2012