May 1st, a sharp reminder of state repression against workers claiming their rights in the oldest democracy, and celebrated worldwide, has all its relevance today in the light of vast concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, the impoverishment of workers and a dwindling middle-class at international level.
It is all too glaring a reality in small post-colonial countries like Mauritius where three centuries of absolute economic and political power held by a few families has set the pace of progress and advancement to the advantage of those who are already experienced in the field of business and hold financial reserves to invest in new businesses and technology.
It should have been a day of reflection on the treatment of workers in diverse sectors of the economy by the increasing number of players today in terms of working conditions and wages. A reflection on labour laws dictated by the business world to the elected representatives of the people, the evolution of these laws, the struggle of trade unions, the abuse of power and authority in hire and fire at will, and non-payment of end-of-the-year bonuses by employers. A recent example is the government’s order to grant six hundred rupees pay rise to employees right after 2014 election was left to the discretion of employers without any supervision that the salary increase was actually implemented. About two months ago, a middle-aged man died at his workplace in a factory, and the cause was attributed to overwork, according to his co-workers. Too much physical strain and stress. It reminded us of working conditions in factories in America in the early 1900s, of burgeoning capitalism, the growth of trade unions and Socialism.
That a man should die from overwork on the eve of Smart Cities, Intelligence Hub, the buzzwords of emerging countries’ parlance, should have triggered a debate in the media. Multiple-job policy which a number of people have resorted to for decades in order to live decently, pay for private tuition in an educational system meant to be free, and issues such as workers having to provide for private health care owing to inadequate public health service, should have also been debated. Multiple jobs, quality of life, social interaction, pursuit of other interests, self-development, lack or nonexistence of cultural activities in some areas are issues which deserve attention of various stakeholders in society. No such thing happened. May 1st was a once again a missed opportunity to address such relevant questions.
Instead, May Day was just like a religious or any other platform for politicians to hold a permanent political campaign, vociferate and harangue opponents unnecessarily. For the past years, politicians have abused their power to make a poor show of themselves and entertain the public with cheap hollow speeches. Last May 1st beat it all with its most pathetic show. Waste of your time and squandering of public funds in organizing those useless gatherings of hired followers. They are so unaware of the mediocrity of their performance that they deem it necessary to broadcast it on two days. Is the government feeling so insecure? Male inflated ego, relation to power and authority, and wealth imbibed with tyranny and sadism, is a story we all know about as well as their constant need for illusory social status and desire to appear as Somebody in post-colonial patriarchy, a corollary pathetic tale alongside the grab for high-profile posts by undeserving elements.
In the face of rising unemployment among young graduates, vacating posts in the public service instead of prolonging employment beyond sixty might have been debated out. Indeed, you meet head mistresses, teachers and public administrators who would rather carry on working, not out of commitment and zeal for the work itself, but just to meet colleagues and not stay at home. Not a laudable reason, one might say. You can surely figure out ways to make life interesting for yourselves after years of enjoying job security which the public service provides. If two thousand jobs can be vacated and taken by young graduates, that would help the young generation to earn a salary and start a family. It would solve the declining demography in the process. Otherwise, only poor uneducated families will keep on having children and relying on social aid, which is more of a burden on the budget than a relief.
We are currently witnessing a particular version and a blinkered vision of job creation and democratization. Legal advisers and consultants getting nominated in different bodies and pocketing disproportionate salaries. Almost ten thousand euros, a salary which highly qualified persons with high intellectual level cannot dream of in top-ranking posts in an advanced country like France which is very demanding on the academic background of those who aspire to work in state and parastatal bodies. What is not new over here is that the country appears to be becoming paradise for certain politicians and their relatives. To add insult to injury, jobs are allegedly invented to satisfy ethnic lobbies at the expense of taxpayers’ money.
Another point that should be urgently addressed is the pool of unqualified workers. Training of workers is done sporadically and is largely insufficient to satisfy demand. The end result is lack of professionalism, inefficiency, amateurism, the à-peu-près work which you can see around. After two decades of development, manual workers in the construction business and in small enterprises lack sufficient know-how to provide satisfactory work. Even electricians and plumbers learn their trade haphazardly. Very strangely, even in developed countries, the more employees are qualified, the less they know. In private companies, state and parastatal bodies, they either give erroneous or insufficient information, and send people from one place to another.
The work culture itself needs to be addressed. Irresponsibility and laziness are rampant in quite a few places, not to mention the propensity to cheat and demand hefty fees. And work less and less. ABC jobs in the public sector, a national joke. Right at the moment you set foot at Plaisance, the overstaffed personnel strikes you on the face. On your way to immigration control, three officers ask you if you hold a resident’s or foreigner’s passport! Only in Mauritius.
Worldwide, the concept of work has been transformed in the capitalist profit-focused type of economy. Workers are units which are replaceable especially in the manufacturing industries. In an overcrowded job market, this weak attitude to work and to workers has spread to other sectors. Hence, the profit and commissions mindset infests various spheres, and the highest offices in the administration of the country held by politicians become tainted and set the wrong example to the population. Across the country, many want to squeeze something out of fellow citizens, getting easy money for no work done. In a most pathetic manner, the same pattern of Third World cheating and grabbing is replicated around you.
The topic of indecent huge salary gaps, the exploitation of workers, impoverishment of women is, seemingly, not a priority to the governing body. Feathering relatives’ nest, that of minor progenies, and unborn ones look like the prime motive of some who are elected every five years and who enjoy salaries disproportionate to their real worth or compared with what other people get for their work.
Compared to North European countries which value lofty ideals in key services of education and health, and fair distribution of wealth, most countries look like hunting grounds for devastating individualism to proliferate, and growing discontent over what people obtain from years of working. It is totally shocking to hear about 12% interest rate demanded by Mauritian banks from a low income earner of Rs 7000. A concrete example of a thirty-year old who needs the money to build a home and settle down.
There are so many work-related issues which deserve attention on Labour Day. Nobody is interested in the diatribes of worn-out politicians who desperately cling to power.
Honestly, evening news on the national television, especially the parliamentary session at the august Assembly, is quite an entertainment. Sometimes, the broadcast is quite a treat! To such a point that when the Assembly session is over, we wish it would go on. For the hilarity it provides in the living-room is worth the monthly fee which was trebled two years ago to fill the coffers of the MBC and pay for the fictitious jobs a happy few benefitted from. After the polite form of address starting with ‘The Honorable Member’, you can almost bet who is going to choke with an overflow of adrenaline and fly into a temper. On public platforms, the use of Creole as a medium to address the public amid tam-tam releases all restraint of the ‘honorable members’. Now the Speaker has joined in the pathetic show, a teacher reprimanding unruly elements in an authoritarian manner from time to time.
* Published in print edition on 6 May 2016