Mauritius Times – 60 Years
By Peter Ibbotson
Rightly the Federation of Civil Service Unions is asking for higher wages for the members of its constituent unions. The higher-paid civil servants, those with over 10,000 rupees a year are having a salary increase, but not so the lower and middle ranks of the Civil Service. And it is on just those ranks, with their low salaries, that the high cost of living bears most hardly and severely.
I have never made any secret of my belief that the first people to be considered when salary revision is being considered – revision upwards, of course – should be those with the lowest incomes. After all, their income covers a very bare minimum standard of life, and if the cost of living goes up – as it has steadily in Mauritius – they have hardly any margin to cover a rise in prices. Therefore, increases in salary scales subsequent to rises in the cost of living should go first of all to the lowest-paid employees.
If personal sacrifices is talked about, I must point out that Civil Servants in the lowest salary ranges are making permanent sacrifices in order to exist on their miserable wages. The highest-paid Civil Servants have room to make sacrifices; they can give up some or other luxuries to make their income go further, if necessary; but the lowest-paid workers cannot give anything up. Their whole salary has to be spent on rent and food and fares and clothes; and they cannot stop spending money on any of these necessities.
When personal sacrifice is talked about by the well-paid members of the community, I am reminded of a biting satirical cartoon I saw years ago. A ladder over the side of a ship had men clinging on every rung. The man on the lowest rung had his head just above water. One rung lower, and he would be submerged; hence, drowned. The man on the top rung was saying “Come on, we must all make equal sacrifice, we must all move one rung lower!”
So, with increases in the cost of living. A man with a salary of 10,000 or more rupees a year is cushioned against rising costs; he has long to wait before his income is overtaken by rising costs. But the man with 4,000 rupees a year is less well cushioned against rising costs; and the man with 1,500 rupees a year is less well cushioned still. It is notorious, too, that increased costs are never paralleled by increased incomes; wages always lag behind costs.
The Government decided not to consider a general revision of Civil Service salaries. At the same time, they decided to increase the salaries of the higher-paid Civil Servants. This decision has had a bad effect on the Civil Service in two ways: firstly, it has upset the balance of pay relativities established by the Ramage Report, and secondly it has disturbed staff relationships within the Civil Service. The Public Servants Association stressed these two points in their petition to the Governor-in-Council in August last. The Colonial Secretary has, however, given an assurance that the Working Party (which has already begun its work), will concern itself with the revision of the wages and salaries of the lower-paid Civil Servants.
This should not take the Working Party long. It should be plain even to the meanest intelligence (and the members of the Working Party are far from being mean of intelligence) that a salary scale of Rs 1,140 by 60 to 1,380 (e.g., head gardeners) or a scale of Rs 1,200 by 60 to 1,620 – with an efficiency bar at Rs 1,440 – for messengers is not enough for a man to live on and bring up a family in decency.
A worker recently detailed his monthly budget in the Mauritius Times. With a wife and four children (a size of family common, indeed we can say typical, in Mauritius) he spent Rs 79.20 a month for food alone! He said: “Nous ne dépensons pas comme les riches, mais comme de pauvres gens.”
To prove this assertion, he added, “Nous achetons les légumes chaque dimanche, cela coute Rs 2.50 par semaine… Voulez-vous que nous mangeons du poisson frais une fois par semaine ? Deux livres de poisson, ça fait Rs 2.60… Nous avons le droit de manger de la viande une fois par mois à Rs 2.25 la lb; 2 lbs., Rs 4.50.”
Meat once a month; fresh fish once a week; milk in the family’s tea – by no means luxuries; yet these add to the monthly food bill and bring it up to Rs 110.10 a month.
Add to this the cost of clothes; expenses in connection with illness and death; fares to and from work (and bus fares have just gone up all over the island); and it is easy to see that Rs 1,440 a year, on Rs 120 a month, are barely enough to sustain a family, with a meagre standard of existence. For food, vegetables and rice; with fish once a week and meat once a month! Such is the standard of existence which hundreds of lower-paid workers are compelled to endure in a colony which is officially prosperous.
Officially, of course, Mauritius is prosperous. We were told so as recently as March 12, 1957, by the then Acting Colonial Secretary:
“It is appropriate here to refer to the extremely favourable financial position in which we find ourselves… Our reserves by June 30 next, the end of the current financial year, will probably be of the order of Rs 75 millions.”
How can the Government justify, when its spokesman in the reply to the Address from the Throne boasts of a “favourable financial position” refusing an immediate all-round increase of Civil Service salaries? And how can they still expect lower-paid civil servants to swallow talk of financial stringency imposing the need for personal sacrifice by individual employees? Of course, they can’t!
On the other hand, it was wrong for Hon Koening to raise the matter of higher salaries for civil servants in the Legislative Council. The question of salary increases ought properly to be left to the appropriate negotiating body. It is important to build up a strong trade union movement; and it is not the duty of a MLC to side track the trade unions and the negotiating machinery, the Whitley Councils, by raising salary claims in Council. We all know why Hon Koenig made his speech in Council supporting the Federation of Civil Service Unions in their demand for a general revision of salaries.
Public opinion must be brought to bear in support of the civil servants’ just claims for better wages. The civil servants have other complaints as well as low wages, however; and it is well to give some of them an airing too. The messengers, for example, are disturbed not only by their low wage scale but also by their work. Many messengers find that they are being given jobs to do by their superiors, especially by heads and sub-heads of departments, which have nothing to do with the public service.
So, let us unite in demanding justice for the lower-paid civil servants; financial justice terminating in an increase of salary so that the balance of pay relativities is restored; additional justice in an extra increase after that, so that lower-paid workers can enjoy a better life than at present; and occupational justice in a definition of duties so that public servants cannot be employed any more on private tasks.
Friday 25 October 1957
4th year – No 168
* Published in print edition on 20 July 2021
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