Hunger strike: Government’s mandatory role as arbiter

One may conveniently seek refuge in a legalistic approach, but that would however amount to a government abdicating its role and responsibility as arbiter

The belated government decision to set up a high-level committee under the chairmanship of Financial Secretary Dev Manraj to examine all options, including the employment of the cleaners, currently employed by private contractors, on a full time contractual basis and identifying an alternate employer for those cleaners, other than government, is an admission that it had erred on the side of indifference and heartlessness vis-a-vis the injustice and exploitation that the dozens of school cleaners have been subjected to for many years at the hands of private contractors.

One may conveniently seek refuge in a legalistic approach, as done by some members of the government, and contend that the cleaners are in the employ of private contractors and appeals for redress of grievances ought to be addressed to the appropriate labour institutions. That would however amount to a government abdicating its role and responsibility as final arbiter in the context of an exploitative economic order that has no qualms about fuelling the extremes of wealth and poverty. It also amounts to a government failing to live up to its constitutional and moral obligations to promote the democratic norms of justice, fairness, and equity – the conducive conditions, amongst others, necessary for economic progress and development.

It has taken 10 days of a hunger strike by the school cleaners and their trade union representatives from the Confédération des Travailleurs du Secteur Privé (CTSP), supported by other trade unionists and members of civil society to have the government get off its high horse of self-sufficient legalism and infuse some sense into its attitude towards the plight of the school cleaners. When people show courage and the willingness to ultimately sacrifice themselves by means of a hunger strike, it is usually to demand from the authorities, which are perceived to have distanced themselves from the concerns of the common people, that their grievances are looked into with compassion and that the decision makers act sensibly.

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On the other hand, viewed from another angle, the crux of the problem has got to do with government’s mandatory role as the arbiter in the matter of terms and conditions of work that are offered by private contractors which are awarded contracts for public works, and its oversight of the implementation of and respect of these parameters

Public contracts in Mauritius run into billions of rupees, and it is efficient public investments mostly in infrastructure that keeps the economy going during periods of economic slack, and boost growth. But public contracts can also be leveraged to produce desired socio-economic outcomes, correct the failings of laissez-faire economics, address growing income inequality, open up the economic space for other entrants, break monopolistic operations, and promote equal opportunity employment in the private sector, etc. These were what were sought to be achieved by the Economic Democratisation Programme of the Labour Party government under the former Prime Minister – but the genie was let out of the bottle along the way, and it’s the reverse that appears to have been achieved…

In the temple of unfettered free market economy, ‘American lawmakers have through numerous laws and executive orders expressed a clear and long-standing objective to set high standards for the treatment of workers on government contracts. Yet too often the jobs created through government contracting are substandard. Many pay very low wages – often below the poverty level – and involve poor working conditions where labour law violations are all too common. Not only is this bad for workers, but these kinds of working conditions can cause taxpayers to receive less than full value in government contracts. When workers are poorly compensated on the front end, taxpayers often bear additional costs on the back end because they receive low quality work and need to provide income assistance to low income families.’

The Centre for American Progress Action Fund informs us that growing numbers of state and local governments are adopting additional “responsible contracting” reforms to improve the quality of jobs generated by their procurement spending — a suite of policies to help raise the wages and improve the benefits of workers who are employed by contractors; to ensure that only law-abiding companies that respect their workers receive government contracts; and to contract out only those services that public employees cannot capably and cost-effectively perform.

Due to massive increases in federal (central government) contracting coupled with inadequate oversight, the twin problems of contractors treating their workers poorly and failing to provide good value for taxpayers have grown in importance. While people may be aware that some federal contractors are excessively compensated and waste taxpayers’ money, the problems of the contracted workforce, and how they are connected to taxpayers’ interests, largely remain hidden from public view. The reforms with the most potential to improve labour standards in contracted work include: careful review of decisions to contract out, rigorous responsibility screening of prospective bidders, high standards for wages and benefits, incentives to raise wages and benefits above the legal floor, strong post-award enforcement, and increased data collection and transparency. These reforms have proven successful when implemented in local, state, and federal contracts.

Given that in any country, government is the largest investor for public works, it can use this factor as leverage – as pointed out above — to obtain the social and economic outcomes that will lead to the improvement of the quality of life for all. It is only by seeing to it that small operators are given their fair chance and equal opportunities in all economic sectors across the board – from hospitality and tourism, retail to manufacturing, etc — that this can be achieved. The challenge of this hunger strike can therefore well be the opportunity for this government to make its mark and assert itself in favour of the people struggling to make a decent living from the bottom of the socio-economic heap, and demonstrate that it means real business in its pledge towards lifting them up towards a life of decency and dignity.



*  Published in print edition on 27 October 2017

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