Inequality and Trade Unionism

The proposed privatization of the CWA, environmental degradation, food insecurity, housing shortage, traffic problems, law and order, unemployment and underemployment, reform of the labour law as well as corruption are all major issues which contribute to increase inequality in a society

Several writers have shown that since 1980 inequality has been on the rise in nearly all countries around the globe with Europe standing out as a possible exception and where there has been more fairness in society. In Mauritius, too, inequality has been on the rise according the latest World Bank Report. At the global level, several reasons have been put forward to explain inequality, and it has been advanced that this dangerous trend will continue if corrective policies are not put in place.

Inequality in society results from government policies with respect to taxation, wages, education, health, and the decline in the bargaining power of trade unions. A look at the past shows that in Mauritius, government policies as well as trade union power have been crucial in improving the wages of workers and securing for the population a number of benefits. for lack of data, it would be difficult to ascertain whether an absolute increase in the wages of lower income groups did not increase equality in the past. But with growing inequality in society, one can postulate that both state policies and union power will have to play a crucial role in narrowing the inequality gap to make our society more democratic.

The inequality gap

Thomas Piketty has observed that in many western societies there has been a reduction in the inequality gap during the period 1914-1945. He explains this by the destruction of capital as a result of a number of crises such as the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the second World War and the emergence of a middle class, technical improvements as well as progressive taxation. Later when capital reorganized itself, it was able to secure the maximum return to the detriment of labour. Writers such as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have also shown that between 1966-1994 inequality increased as trade union membership declined in 31 OECD countries.

Though we are not able to say whether in the past we were able to bring down significantly inequality in our society, we know from own history that there was a general improvement in the conditions of the masses during certain specific periods of our history. From the 1930s, workers’ protest against low wages and poor conditions of work triggered the march of workers on Union Sugar Estate in August 1937. As a result, the Hooper Commission recommended a number of measures to improve the conditions of workers in the country. Apart from an increase in wages and better conditions of work, it also recommended the creation of industrial associations.

In those days, the owners of capital opposed even the term trade union in the legislation for fear that that term, translated in French as ‘syndicat’, would be associated with ‘syndicalisme’ and ‘communisme’ as was the case in France at that time. This is why the term ‘industrial association’ was used in the Ordinance of 1938, which allowed for the creation of industrial associations in Mauritius. However, every grudging concession made to workers is always accompanied by some obstacles in the form of procedures and regulations to hinder the free operation of trade unions. For example, in 1943, failure by the Department of Labour to implement the legislation resulted in the shooting at Belle Vue Harel.

For the 1950s and 1960s, it is difficult to disentangle the role played by unions and government policies in improving the general conditions of workers. The trade union movement was closely associated with the Mauritius Labour Party and other progressive politicians. Guy Rozemont was both the leader of a strong trade union movement and the president of the Mauritius Labour Party. Labour Party politicians like Dr Ramgoolam, Renganaden Senneevassen and Dr Millien, to mention but a few, were committed to Fabianism and the construction of a Welfare State. The Labour politicians also had the support of the workers and trade unionists who were members of the Legislature as well. The close connection between workers, trade unionists and politicians ensured that workers obtained a fair deal.

Electoral politics

Electoral politics too played its part since workers entered the political scene after they had secured the right to vote in 1958. For the first time, they achieved equality as subjects in a colonial society, and their numbers both as members of trade unions and as voters exerted great pressure on political parties. On the other hand, it was the Government Servants and Employees Association which pioneered a number of changes for the benefit of civil servants. Through its submissions to the Civil Service Salaries Commission in 1945, it secured a number of measures for its members — minimum wages for government employees, particularly manual workers, the promotion of casual workers to permanent pensionable establishment (PPS), the establishment of the Whitley Council and the creation of a Federation of Civil Service Unions.

The power of trade unions combined with the power of the vote at elections yielded a number of benefits for workers. In the 1960s the report on the sugar industry gave agricultural workers a 23% increase in real wages apart from revolutionary legislation to protect workers from arbitrariness, the introduction of severance allowance and wages councils. Even during the worst economic crisis in 1979, the Labour government accepted the implementation of Structural Adjustment measures and two devaluations but refused to touch free education and free health.

The 1970s too saw the improvement of conditions of workers through pressure and strikes organized by trade unions affiliated to the MMM. From the late 1970s, some argue that different legislations — the IRA, the Labour Act, the Employment Relations Act and Employment Rights Act – brought about a number of benefits for workers and the trade unions such as by giving prominence to the right to strike, procedural agreements, collective bargaining and right to a work contract. Nevertheless, one has to acknowledge that every labour legislation since 1938 was intended directly or indirectly to rein in trade unions and limit workers’ autonomy. Admittedly, in capitalist economies, the state in its efforts to juggle both the interests of workers and capital has had to resort to measures to regulate capital as well as Labour.

If throughout the past decades, trade unions and state policies played an important role in making society relatively less unequal, in the 1990s the weakening of the trade union movement provided an opportunity for capital to reassert its power against workers and canvass in favour of legislations and other policies against the interests of workers. At the international level, arguments such as globalization and digitalization to explain growing inequality have not been convincing for many. They point out that that Britain and US are subject to the same globalization and technological forces but inequality is far more pronounced in the US than in the UK. It is argued that the UK has a market economy but is not a market society.

In Mauritius the situation is different. We have a capitalist economy – it’s an open economy that is vulnerable to the external environment. In such a situation, a weak government finds it convenient to tilt the balance in favour of capital to the detriment of workers. The state is further weakened in dealing with capital because a weak trade union movement cannot be of great support to the state, and the latter cannot even use the trade union movement as a bargaining chip to extract financial concessions from capital for the benefit of Labour, especially if it is devoid of any progressive ideology.

Rentier capitalism

Populism, pragmatism and short-termism can only be a recipe for disaster. On the other hand, sensing the weaknesses of the State and the labour movement, capital has grown from strength to strength because it can buy politicians, media space and legislations against workers and even a crowd for select political rallies. From Piketty, we also learn that with capitalism there is no general tendency towards equality, and even when the economy is not growing, capital will continue to reap high returns as rentiers and through financial institutions. No wonder that in Mauritius, each major corporate group has set up its own bank and can freely indulge in financial transactions, land speculations and property development.

Faced with a weak state which has given up its relative freedom and distance from capital and with no major government policy to reduce inequality and implement rigorously the minimum wage regime, workers are left with only the power of trade unions for upholding and protecting their interests. To recover its strength, the trade union movement should reinvent itself. It should embark on an aggressive recruitment of new members and sensitize workers on the need to join trade unions and reflect and act on all social, economic and political issues that are of great national concern at the moment and for the future.

The proposed privatization of the CWA, universal pension, environmental degradation, food insecurity, housing shortage, traffic problems, law and order, unemployment and underemployment, reform of the labour law as well as corruption are all major issues which contribute to increase inequality in a society. Trade unions should and can develop new forms of power and new worker solidarity as well as solidarity among all unions but also with other civic organisations to secure policies which can narrow the inequality gap in our society.

Only a strong national movement spearheaded by the trade union movement can become a force which neither capital nor the state can ignore.


* Published in print edition on 4 May 2018

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