The Mauritius Labour Party was born in the throes of a bitter struggle between employers and the working class. The force and clarity with which the party formulated its objection to the repression of workers in those days won it the support of all working class families of Mauritius.
The descendants of those families still consider that, of all the political parties in place, Labour is the one that will stand up against injustice meted out to the working class. The stalwarts of the party who fought for the justified rights of workers were sincere, hardworking and they believed in their mission. This made them adamant in their resistance against employers who wanted to quell any effort by the working class to vindicate its rights.
Worker rights that were acquired by the long struggle delivered by Labour were fully abused by the MMM political party disguised as trade unions. The final objective of trade union action of the early 1970s was not really to give a further fillip to the cause of workers but to employ trade union action to wreck the economy, if need be, in a bid to secure political power at all cost. But the economy of Mauritius survived the assault.
A properly functioning economy needs to strike a delicate balance between the demands of workers, on the one hand, and maintenance of a predictable platform for economic operators, on the other, for both sides to engage in business on a well-informed basis about the rights and obligations of each other. It is the context in which the first tough industrial legislation, the Industrial Relations Act (IRA), was introduced in 1973. Strict bounds were laid down in this legislation for each side to keep to for the sake of fostering orderly industrial relations. The IRA turned out to be quite repressive towards unions in the matter of resorting to strike actions, given the background of abusive strikes of the early 1970s which had almost paralysed the faltering economy. As a result, there was on-going pressure from the unions to relax the strict constraints imposed on their degrees of freedom by the IRA.
Two new legislations, the Employment Rights Act and the Employment Relations Act were passed in 2008 to replace the IRA and to respond to the continuing pressure from the unions against that legislation. However, Mauritius had become more closely integrated with the global economy compared with the time the IRA was enacted. The world economy had itself globalized and unleashed competitive forces that had to be reckoned with when crafting labour legislation. Besides, an improvement in living standards as from the 1980s had acted to limit worker unionization in the country. As a result, it is estimated that 80% of workers in the private sector, the largest employer, are not formally unionized today. Taking advantage perhaps of weakening of worker bargaining force in the circumstances, the new legislations of 2008 endorsed a series of ultra-liberal practices, including conferring upon employers easy hiring and firing rights and doing away with a committed workforce by virtue of proliferation of contractual jobs.
It seemed the pendulum had swung 360 degrees round against the fight originally delivered by Labour in the dark days of the last century. But the opposition did not, on its part, carry credibility enough to restore the balance. It was perceived as being pro-business owners rather and not really minded to challenge this new legislative setup on the principle that it was hurting the workforce.
Officially, it was claimed that the new labour legislation of 2008 had to keep up with laws in other countries and that it was intended to attract additional investment into the country and hence it had the potential to increase employment. The point is that it has not impacted positively in respect of creating additional Mauritian employment and expanding our platform of economic activities as suggested. It has not grown our skill base for competing on global markets.
On Tuesday last, the Minister of Labour, Industrial Relations and Employment tabled a couple of amendments to the labour legislations introduced in 2008. The object of the amendments was to shift over balloting for proposed strike actions from the Commission for Conciliation and Mediation (CCM) to the Employment Relations Tribunal (ERT), and to give powers to non-unionized workers to negotiate collective agreements with employers that will be applicable to all workers. There was also provision being made to stop any re-negotiation if a collective agreement was already in place.
Unions have come out with statements to the effect that no prior discussion involving them was held when introducing those amendments in the legislations. They have also claimed that the amendment proposals were in line with earlier proposals made by the employer side (and previously rejected), notably the Mauritius Sugar Producers Association and the Mauritius Employers Federation. They are of the view that this could be a backdoor device being used by employers and the Ministry to neutralize unions by facilitating variation of collective agreements by employers alone. They interpret powers being given to a collective of workers signing up an agreement binding all workers as a ploy to disempower trade unions. The amendments were, according to them, an attempt to restrain the unions from bringing up new issues (not covered by existing agreements) for reason only that there existed a collective agreement on other issues.
According to the Minister, it is the CCM itself that would have proposed that strike balloting be shifted over to the ERT. No reason has been given as to why the ERT would be more competent to do a job that was previously being done at the initiative of the unions under the supervision of an official from the CCM. No reason has been given to explain either why the amendments were intending to limit reporting of industrial disputes by the unions. Unions suspect that this could have been because it was intended to give employers a free hand to have recourse to abusive practices such as unilateral mass dismissal of workers for economic reasons. They also believe that the objective of the proposed amendments was to increase the vulnerability of workers through the practice of proliferating employment of contractual and seasonal workers.
Finally, the proposed amendments to the labour laws were withdrawn and will most probably be tabled again after thrashing out differences with all the stakeholders.
It is true that the international economic downturn has tended to shift the scales in favour of conservative policies advocated by the right. However, even in a stricken place like Europe, political leaders have come to the realization that while redress is necessary by going forward with more flexible labour market and other policies, they should not go on pressing down the working class too much to the limits. Evidently, employers over here will tend to take advantage of a situation where workers are disunited and unions no longer have commitment and drive on any scale comparable with the trail blazed by Labour leaders of old. It will then look much like the story that devaluation of the rupee — the more the better — would be helping industry to keep up employment without adducing the least evidence for the same. In the case of the rupee, it is a price, the exchange rate, that they have been hitting. In the case of labour, it is persons that will be struck directly. Unless there is better management in the latter case, we might end up seeing the poles reversed as regards the fundamental social values for which Labour has stood so long.
* Published in print edition on 21 December 2012