People, Not Birds, Need Protection

Mauritius Times – 60 Years

By Peter Ibbotson

Last year we saw a proclamation by the Governor under the Game Ordinance prohibiting the shooting, capturing, or killing of any wild birds except 10 specified varieties. This year we have before us an amendment to the same Game Ordinance intended to legalise the possession, for seven days after the close of the shooting season, of venison or a deer carcase that has been lawfully acquired.

The Game Ordinance also, of course, lays down the rigid dates between which deer hunting is prohibited and between which it is lawful.

Thus, we see a tender regard for the wildlife of the colony. Wild birds — except for 10 kinds — may not be shot or captured at all. Deer may be hunted and killed only between carefully specified dates. The full majestic panoply of the law protects them at other times; and protects birds at all times.

This contrasts strongly, and strangely, with the attitude of the powers-that-be towards the men and women who make up our population. Are they protected by the law in the way that animals and birds are protected? The lives of birds and animals are sacrosanct; but what about the lives of human beings?

Men and women in Mauritius are constrained to beg if they have not enough to live on. Le Cerneen has protested about the beggars who, it has said, give a bad impression to visitors. Certainly, no visitor who had read the eulogistic Qantas advertisement in Reader’s Digest (“Here in magical Mauritius you can enjoy the fascinating French way of life in conditions to suit your taste and purse — in a luxury chateau in the bracing uplands or a picturesque chalet by a lazy lagoon… In a few hours you can reach this island paradise”) would expect to see the crowds of beggars and paupers; would expect to see such scenes as a man buying a supper of bread and cucumber and carrying all his worldly possessions a bundle of wrapping paper which acts as his bedding – wherever he goes. No-one after reading that advertisement would be prepared for the queues for free bread at St Antoine’s Chapel. No one would be prepared for the sight of paupers grubbing among the refuse of the Central Market for any edible remains that may have been dropped under the stalls.

Yet all these sights can be seen — and the Government, so tender-hearted to protect the birds, so careful to let deer go unhunted most of the year, seems to have nothing to offer to make the future of the paupers and beggars seem less bleak.

Even those who are in work, if they are among the lowest-paid, fare little better. The press regularly reports pertinent facts shedding light on the misery of the lowest-paid workers. For example, Tribune Ouvriere asked: On voudrait savoir quand les conclusions du Board de conciliation des pions des firmes privées seront rendues publiques. Les pions sont naturellement un peu impatients. Rappelez-vous qu’ils ne touchent actuellement que Rs 90 par mois ! Government-employed peons are a little better off: Rs 1,200 by 60 to 1620, with an efficiency bar at Rs 1,440! This is just not good enough, as is testified by the actual budgets of workers which have from time to time appeared in the press. In the Mauritius Times last year, a worker (married with four children) showed that his monthly expenditure on food alone was Rs 79.20. He said Nous ne dépensons pas comme les riches, mais comme de pauvres gens, and added Nous achetons les légumes chaque dimanche, cela coûte 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 Ib.

Fish once a week, meat once a month; the staple diet being rice. The food bill — Rs 79.20 a month. Add to this the cost of fuel, clothing, fares, household requisites such as soap and other cleaning materials, and it is obvious that the peon’s wage of Rs 90 or the Government private pion‘s wage of Rs 100 (minimum) or even Rs120 (maximum) aren’t nearly enough to make ends meet. Born into poverty, living in poverty, dying in poverty — such is the fate of thousands of Mauritians. For poverty one could read equally truly debt — but so far there seems no hurry to curb the rapacities of the blood-sucking moneylenders who abound like parasites all over the island. They are either ‘official’ moneylenders, who openly lend money; often they are employees of private firms or the Government who lend money on the side to fellow-employees and thus swell their own wage-packet at the expense of some other unfortunate.

Dix Familles, we are told, have run Mauritius for 150 years. This is rather fewer than the 25 familles et leurs amis about whom we heard earlier this year. But whether it is 10 or 25 families who really rule Mauritius, it is true that a mere handful of wealthy folk “hold most of the arable land, the mountains and the rivers, and have certain rights over all the Crown Lands and the Pas Géometriques: and half a million people must depend on them for their livelihood; half a million who starve silently and slowly to premature death through lack of proper food and proper care; half a million whose children do not receive adequate education; half a million who have no clear vision of what the future holds for them’. It is these half-million rather than the birds and the deer, who are in need of protection.

And are the fundamental needs of these half-million being protected? The primary need of mankind is food. Is the Government safeguarding the cost of the worker’s food ? Apparently not. Advance reported on July 8 that l’indice du coût de vie pour les laboureurs agricoles a été, en mai 1958, de 152.0 sur la base de 100 en 1946, comparativement à 145.3 en juin 1957. The cost of living for labourers and artisans had also risen in the same period (376 to 390 for the former, 340 to 355 for the latter, the base being 100 in 1939). The cost of living went up — yet the wages of sugar estate labourers remained static throughout 1957 and 1958 according to the agreement signed in July 1957 between the Sugar Producers’ Association and the Agricultural Labourers’ Association!

A rise in the cost of living from 145.3 to 152 is a rise of about 4 per cent; of 4 cents in the rupee; of almost 4 rupees in the monthly wage of the monthly employed field labourer. But thanks to the 1957 wage agreement, even this miserable rise, enabling the worker simply to meet the rising cost of living, was denied. Small wonder that the field labourer, seeing his costs rising and his wages remaining static, is becoming fed-up with the MALA and is supporting the demand for (lacking a militant trade union recognised for bargaining purposes by the Sugar Producers’ Association) a wages board set up by the Government.

If the Government can look after the interests of the deer and the birds of Mauritius (always expecting the schlug-schlug, the red-whiskered bulbul, and eight other species), then surely it can spare time to look after the interests of the workers of Mauritius? After all it is the workers of Mauritius — especially the workers in the canefields, producing an average of over 10 tons of sugar each year — on whom the prosperity of the country depends. On the deer, only the so-called sport of the 10 or 25 families depends; but on the sugar estate workers, everyone depends.

So dependent is Mauritius on the sugar estates, that the oligarchy who control the estates’ (and therefore Mauritius’) economy can manipulate the island’s prosperity by their activities. Next year is an election year; already ugly stories are going round that economic pressure is to be brought to bear on the workers to induce them not to vote Labour. A Chinese trader reports that a certain bank manager told him to be careful in his ideals because next year sugar production would decrease. Is this a coincidence in an election year? At the beginning of this crushing season, one mill is said to have deliberately wasted several tons of molasses by pouring it into the sea. Other bank officials have issued warnings to traders similar to that reported by the Chinese… is there some deep-laid trick to reduce the economic prosperity of the country on the eve of a general election? (If the election had been at the proper time, last August that is, the argument that economic pressure is being used would still apply). If there is some deep-laid machination against the worker’s interests, it would not be surprising. History is full of examples of economic pressure being brought against the workers’ political emancipation; and we recall the estates’ reply to the cow-keepers in 1953: “Go and ask your Labour friends for fodder”. The employers will stoop to any tricks to break the backs of the workers — a noteworthy case was of course in 1938 when 43 workers, mostly sugar estate employees were victimised.

If the workers’ own trade unions cannot adequately protect the material interests of the workers, and there is ample evidence that as far as agricultural labourers are concerned the unions have failed in this, the Government has the duty under the Minimum Wages Ordinance to step in and set up a Wages Board. Can the Government not, therefore, tear itself away from the protection of deer and birds and apply itself to the imperatively overdue matter of protecting the workers?

5th Year No 216
Friday 26th September 1958

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