Planters and Workers in the Industries

Mauritius Times – 60 Years

By Jay Narain Roy

Planters of the sugar industry have a catalogue of complaints. They do not know whose doors to knock for redress. The organisation set up as an intermediary fails to inspire confidence. The planters have not revolted, as they did in 1937, because prices being fairly stable, they have been left under illusion, gnawing the crumbs.

The planters pay their toll when factories are centralised; when factory cane-carriers cannot accommodate their lorries; when they are delayed because of the lack of factory organisation; when they lose in weight in the hands of impressionably young weighers who are not sworn; when a difficult or impossible quota is imposed; when a higher standard than the estate canes is forced upon them; when they did not get anything from the Rehabilitation Fund and for molasses or two-third extraction; when the estates cut their canes and reduce their overdraught one month earlier; when they are compelled to transport their chemicals by railway transport; when they are compelled to sign a kind of unilateral contract; when they are made to pay exorbitant rates of rent; when they are mercilessly evicted from metayage lands without compensation; when middlemen do not give them faisance and chemicals in time; when they are compelled to go through a broker to sell their sugar; when the millers rule the roost in all organisations set up through cesses on sugar; when they have to pay wages higher than the estates…

Probably the position was somewhat worse. How far has it really improved? Here are some of the obvious signs of improvement: (c) formerly estates were allowing metayers and they were also giving lands for rotation crops (b) weighers at weighbridges were all sworn (e) the canes accepted were of the same standard as that of the estates (d) lorries or carts could deliver their canes anywhere. And a host of other things that have been suppressed. Nobody can justify the facts enumerated in the second paragraph.

What is the position of planters in the tea and tobacco industries? In the tea industry many planters have uprooted their plantations just because they could not make both ends meet. It costs over 30 cents to produce one pound of tea leaf. The planters, according to Government regulation have to share in the profits of the millers. What profits are they likely to show when their accounts have been handled by chartered accountants? The planters had pinned their hope to extricate themselves from the accountancy tangle on two new developments. They thought that the Government tea factory would one of these days turn out to be a cooperative factory of planters. With the coming of Nuwara Eliya Co, that hope has receded in the background. We do not know what the new company will turn out to be. Is it a change for the better for the planters, for the workers, for the country? Let us wait and see.

The tea planters had also expected that the Government will expedite the idea of setting up a Tea Board. It has been our experience that things move pretty fast with the Government when it hurts against the interest of the common man but it paces down to the speed of snail when it touches the big boss. Take the tenancy legislation. Will the Government ever have the courage to ruffle the real rulers of this country? Governors and Governments come and go but the might of the chimneys has gone on from strength to strength.

May be the position of the tobacco planters is still worse as they have to reckon with the most overbearing form of monopoly this country has known in its long and chequered annals. Why cannot the Government help the planters to put up a cooperative factory being given that unlike the millers of the sugar and tea industries, the miller is not a producer of raw materials? This particular concern is very powerful and it seems to have influence in Whitehall and Westminster.

Those who till and labour have no facilities that people in similar circumstances have elsewhere. It is more than obvious that behind this purely economic struggle is the obsessing racial consideration, and this is by far the most ungainly feature of our situation. In the tobacco industry, for example, I know of an inspector and teacher of cultivation methods who had to sell his own tobacco lands because he failed in it himself. Another one had to sublet his permit because it was beyond his competence to make a success of it.

I do not think that the Tobacco Board which has been built and set up with the money of the planters employs a son of a planter even as a messenger. The whole outlook everywhere seems to be that the planter is a milch cow and everyone is entitled to help himself with his pitcher. Surely the position would have been quite different if all the planters were of European extraction. The Government cannot plead ignorance to this state of affairs. Nor should it long be allowed to think that the coloured sections are just a heap of congenital nincompoops. Surely not all of them can be fooled

The increasing difficulties of the artisans have never been sufficiently emphasised. First of all, they have no regular training in any institution. But they are intelligent and quick to grasp. Those who served in the Middle East were highly appreciated as technicians. Some who have gone out to other colonies on contract work have done honour to their country. But the amount of unemployment among artisans has ever been on the increase since the time of the centralisation of factories.

To this has been added three other factors which laid their burden on the lot of the artisans. One was the introduction of labour-saving, automatic machines, and this has gone on increasing during the last decade. Then there is the attempt to give contracts of all works involving the employment of artisans. The contractors are either some big firms or some favourites and they have their own men. Quite a number of good artisans have lost their jobs because of their trade union activities or activities in connection with the Labour movement. After their discharge they become blacklisted and it obviously become very difficult for them to be employed in the industry. There are hundreds of good, skilled artisans who cannot find employment and they are living an extremely miserable life.

In another article I have already dealt with the rights and obligations of the labourers of the sugar industry. I should like to make some remarks of a general nature, remarks that touch upon questions of principle. The labourers are, by and large, the most important single item of the prosperity of any industrial concern particularly in the sugar industry where both field and factory work depend on them. As a corollary to the preceding point it will be accepted by all knowledgeable people that the recruitment and management of labour is the most difficult work of an administration.

While the salaries, power and privileges of managers and overseers of estates have considerably increased during the last few years, the recruitment, and to a great extent, the management of the bulk of labourers and artisans are now in the hands of job contractors. Fourthly, there is a fearful gap in the treatment meted out to the white and coloured employees of the estates.

Seeing the sinecure nature of highly paid jobs, the shuddering amounts which some people get for doing nothing, and the flotsam of people hanging around as middlemen, suppliers, brokers, job-contractors, etc., and the starving wages paid to those who work and sweat to sustain the industry, it becomes quite manifest that the angle from which purely economic problems are looked at is of rabid racialism. There cannot be any other earthly explanation, and I challenge any one to give one.

Last but not the least is the fact of the industrial organisation by which the manager gets a commission on profits. Can he show savings on machineries for development, on overhead charges, on housing and bonus to the superior staff, on chemical fertilizers, etc?

I cannot finish this article without requesting the readers to think of the role of the Government during the last half a century. It may have produced volumes and volumes of reports but are the workers and the planters in the industries any the better off all this wordy benevolence?

5th Year – No 221
Friday 31st October, 1958

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