Labour Problems

Mauritius Times – 60 Years

By Peter Ibbotson

What many people would like to know is: how many unemployed persons are there in Mauritius? It is no use going to the Labour Department: its figures showed, in 1955, unemployment figures ranging from 1950 in September to 3049 in February. Yet the difference in the labour force on the estates between crop and intercrop was 10,717 — a difference clearly not reflected in the Department’s figures of unemployment.

Why does the Labour Department not know the number of unemployed persons? Because not every unemployed person registers every week at a Labour Exchange. And why not? Because there is no incentive for him to do so. There are no jobs anyway, so why should an unemployed person spend half a day every week, as well as his bus fare, in travelling to a Labour Exchange just in order to be told what he already knows? There is no social insurance; so weekly attendance at a Labour Exchange is unnecessary.

But failing exact figures relating to unemployment, how can the Government accurately work out a social insurance scheme? How can liabilities be estimated when all the facts (or even an approximation to all the facts) are not known? Unemployment benefits are sorely needed; at present people are starving during the intercrop because they have no money to buy food. And unemployment benefits for the great army of unemployed workers would give them something in their pockets and thus benefit the shopkeepers and trade generally.

Social insurance, contributory of course, would help all round. Workers would pay a small weekly sum and stamps would be stuck on their insurance cards. When their employment ended — when, for example, they were sacked — their employer would have to give them their cards to be handed in at the Labour Exchange. When they got a new job — through the Labour Exchange of course — they would be given their cards back to hand to their new employer for regular weekly stamping.

A necessary corollary of unemployment insurance and unemployment benefits is, of course, that workers shall be recruited by employers only through a Labour Exchange. At present many employees do not use the Labour Exchanges; certainly many prefer instead to make use of the Parti Mauricien’s private employment bureaus and the iniquitous ONE RUPEE CARD system. One reason advanced for the preference of employers for private bureaus is that these employers fear that if they use the Government Exchanges they will have to pay the minimum wages, but if they use private bureaus they can safely get away with paying lower-than-minimum wages!

Another abuse which unemployment insurance would help to check is the practice of giving a bisoin chanter, a “little present”, to someone who can help in getting a job. The bisoin chanter system works this way. A labourer is employed in a gang working for the Public Works Department for example. After he has been working for two months, his sirdar sacks him. Two weeks later, he goes back to ask the sirdar to re-engage him. If he pays, say, ten rupees “entry fee”, the sirdar will agree to take him back into the gang but each week thereafter the labourer must also pay the sirdar a rupee out of his weekly wage to ensure not being sacked again.

The job contractor also takes his “little present”. “Find me 50 men to work at Rs 3.00” says the employer to the job contractor, who goes off and finds the requisite 50 men, telling each, however, that the employer is offering only Rs 2.75 — he pockets the odd 25 cents per man per day for himself. Then, when the employer pays the job contractor the total sum of wages to be distributed among the gang of 50 workers, he of course adds the customary 5 or 10 per cent commission for the job contractor… so that the job contractor gets his cut from the employer, as well as his cut from the workers. Only, of course, the cut from the workers is a little bit of chicanery on the part of the contractor. In addition, of course, a really unscrupulous job contractor will say to his gang: “Unless you give me a little present, I shall not remember your name for future work with me. Bisoin chanter with a vengeance! Yes if the Labour Exchanges were properly used by the employers, especially by the estates at crop times, the need for the parasitic job contractor (with all his possible ways of making money) would disappear.

Many employers pay under the minimum agreed wage. Many employers do not scrupulously adhere to the letter of trade and wage agreements and wage ordinances. Labour inspectors are supposed to find out abuses of the labour laws, but in practice they are often unable to do so.

Trade union leaders are forbidden access to the sugar estates except by prior notification to, and permission of, the manager — so that it is thus impossible for a trade union leader to make an on-the-spot immediate check of any of his members’ complaints. And unfortunately conditions in the Labour Department itself are not always what they should be. There is much public suspicion that certain high-up personages in the Department find a conflict of loyalty between their duty to the Department and their relationship to wealthy members of their social community. In other words, between their duty to protect the workers and their instinctive loyalty.

These problems confronting the Labour Department are spotlighted by the necessity of appointing a successor to Mr James Sterling, O.B.E., as Labour Commissioner. Certain names have been mentioned as possible successors: Mr A. H. Vaudin, the Deputy Labour Commissioner; Mr Lane, a former Civil Commissioner (North); Mr Pickwood, who before he left Mauritius some years ago was Assistant Labour Commissioner — that was in the days when the Assistant Labour Commissioner was the post corresponding to the present Deputy; and Mr Carpenter, Civil Commissioner (Moka-Flacq) to name only a few.

Workers all over Mauritius have a great interest in this matter of Mr Sterling’s successor. Just as it is important that justice should not only be done, but should clearly be seen to be done, it is important to have as Labour Commissioner a man who not only is impartial, but also is clearly seen be impartial.

The Labour Commissioner must be someone whom the workers can trust; therefore someone unconnected with the estates; unconnected with the capitalists. He must be someone whose impartiality cannot, even by implication, be called into question. He must not be a man who is known to have but little faith in trade unionism, or whom report states to have but little faith in trade unions. And his appointment must be 100 per cent free from suspicion that nepotism is in any way involved, either in the appointment itself or in the manner in which the Commissioner carries out his duties.

The choice of a Labour Commissioner to succeed Mr Sterling is vitally important to the workers; and to the Labour Party. For it is Mr Sterling’s successor who will be in at the birth of the projected social insurance system, so that it is essential to have a man who is utterly sympathetic to such a scheme and who is familiar (as all Britishers are) with social security systems.

It will be the Labour Government, surely due to be elected at the next General Election, which will bring in the social insurance scheme; that is why I say that the choice of the Labour Commissioner is vital to the Labour Party.

Let us hope that wisdom will prevail when Mr Sterling’s successor is chosen.

5th Year – No 198
Friday 23rd May, 1958

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 15 July 2022

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