Ministers Must Go To It!

Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago

By Peter Ibbotson

The new Ministers will take office at a time when there are many drastic policies necessary to be followed to help the people. The finances of the island are in good shape; and should continue in good shape unless there is an unusually severe succession of cyclone years. Future prosperity based on a prosperous sugar crop seems assured; it will be assured as long as the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement runs. Unfortunately the present Tory government in Britain has taken the first step to undermine the Agreement, though the Agreement itself has until 1962 at least to run.

Construction of M1 Motorway from Phoenix to Port Louis– New Asphalt Technique – 1960s (Photo

Given a healthy financial base, what are the people expecting from their ministerial government? Rightly, they are expecting that something will be done to help them. They are expecting that something will be done to reduce the high prices of essential foodstuffs. They are expecting that something will be done to benefit the unemployed and sick and old and poverty-stricken.

Everything cannot, of course, be done at once. But the new Ministers cannot be forgiven if they do not at once get on with the job of tackling the problems besetting Mauritius. The main problems are the need for a more balanced economy; the growth of population in an area of limited size; unemployment (which is bound up with the need for a more balanced economy); and inter-racial co-operation.

The new Executive Committee will, unless the statements of colonial policy voiced by Mr Lennox-Boyd and Mr Lyttelton before him are mere eyewash, have responsibility for the government of Mauritius. The Ministers will be responsible for the smooth running of Mauritian society; for the welfare of the people. The 1958 elections (whether held at the right time or postponed) will show how well or how ill they have discharged their responsibilities.

From the pure Crown Colony regime, with its Liaison Officers who lacked any responsibility in formulating policy, the new Executive inherits sticky problems. One is the matter of raising (or not raising) the salaries of Civil Servants with salaries of 10,320 rupees a year and over. The 1957-58 estimates allow for the proposed increase which has been communicated to M.L.C’s in a Sessional Paper. Such a communication has the air of a fait accompli; but the new Ministers must not let the Financial Secretary get away with it so easily. Any proposal to increase the salaries of top civil servants must be carefully scrutinised. The people will not look kindly on salary increase being granted to top civil servants when there are thousands of Mauritians living in conditions of the utmost squalor and misery. The new Ministers are there to care for the welfare of the people of Mauritius, not merely for a small section of the population whose smallness is disproportionate to its vocality.

The whole question of wages and conditions of work needs looking into. Up to now, breaches of the Labour Code have been common. The agreements between the Sugar Producers’ Association and the labourers’ unions have, as far as the benefits additional to wages are concerned, often been breached. The people are expecting the Minister, who is really responsible for his Department instead of being a mere puppet liaison officer, to ensure that the Code and these agreements are honoured in both letter and spirit. They are expecting too that the Minister for Labour will introduce a national wages policy. At present the national wages policy is based on the inhuman assumption that a labourer’s wife works and that they add to their money-wage by keeping hens or cows and selling the eggs or milk. And the wages paid to all other workers are based on the wages paid in the sugar industry.

This inhuman wages policy must end, and end at once. It is true that wages outside the sugar industry must be related to wages inside that industry; after all, it is the basic industry on which Mauritius depends. But there must be an immediate end to the system which bases a man’s wage on the fact that his wife must earn part of what is needed to keep him and their children for a year. The costs of production in the sugar industry are apparently wrapped in secrecy. At least they are shrouded in mystery. It is known that Mauritius is a low-cost sugar producing area; therefore, with world prices guaranteed it must be a high-profit area. But just how much a ton of sugar costs to produce, we don’t know. The Sugar Producers’ Association won’t deign to tell us; perhaps they are too ashamed to admit just how much they are making out of the sweat of the labourer who, after all, produces 10 tons of sugar a year for his employer. If the sugar producers will not admit their costs of production, so that we may judge how high wages the industry can really afford – and make no mistake, the sugar industry can well afford higher wages than it is paying at present – then the Executive Committee should set up a Commission of Enquiry into Costs and Profits in the Sugar Industry. Such an enquiry would act as the base for a full economic survey of Mauritius.

When the new wage structure is being worked out, the fact that wives may also work should be utterly disregarded when determining the wage to be paid to an adult male worker. The Government should take the initiative in a wages policy; for the trade unions have shown themselves unable to do so. They have failed in their job of wage negotiation for a number of reasons. One is that employers are not willing to recognise certain unions. Another reason is that members of unions are likely to be victimised by their employers (e.g. the sacked stevedores). Another reasons is that the unions in Mauritius are unable to use the ultimate weapon of the union, the strike, since there is widespread unemployment, and the employers would (by playing off one section of the community against another) be able to drive a fairly substantial wedge into the ranks of the workers.

Rather than wait for legislation which will strengthen the unions and their activities, I suggest a Government-sponsored wages policy on a national basis though of course side by side with this must also come legislation designed to further the cause of trade unionism. Trade unions are a bulwark of democracy; they are also a training ground for the political leaders of tomorrow. In Mauritius they are weak; if they cannot be strengthened of themselves, they must be helped by sympathetic legislation. (There is no need for legislation sympathetic to the employers; they are strong enough to take care of themselves.)

What can the new Ministers do about the unemployment? There are a number of private members’ motions which give the answer. A system of unemployment benefit is long overdue. The people are looking to the Ministers to introduce as soon as possible such a system. The grave unemployment existing in Mauritius causes the utmost misery. At present the unemployed have to seek either Public Assistance or charity. If they seek Public Assistance they are not always received sympathetically by the petty local officials of the Public Assistance Department. The charitable institutions and funds have not the resources needed to do much more than merely scratch the surface of the problem. Therefore some form of Unemployment Relief is necessary. The Ministers will be expected to produce concrete plans for Unemployment Benefit in a very short space of time. The need is urgent; now that Mauritius is internally self-governing there is no excuse for further delay.

4th Year No 150 – Friday 21th June 1957

(More next week)

* Published in print edition on 27 October 2020

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