Our London Letter
The July issue of ‘African and Colonial World’, edited by Dr K.D. Kumria, refers in the editorial Notebook to Mauritius. Says the editor, “Mauritius is to be kept in political turmoil, by politically dividing the people by the introduction of proportional representation, and thus trying to reduce a majority into a minority”. The issue also contains important articles on Madagascar and Somaliland, as well as a review by Negro journalist George Padmore of an important book, ‘The Colour Curtain’ which deals with the Bandung Conference of the Asian and Africa people. Recalling his splenetic outburst in the Daily Express some years ago. Mauritians will not be surprised to find Sefton Delmer being severely criticized by Padmore.
Housing and Health
This was the subject of an address given last month to the Housing Centre Annual Conference by Dr Hailwood, medical officer of health for the borough of Crosby (near Liverpool). In view of the prevalence of wretched housing conditions all over Mauritius, it is worth while seeing what Dr Hailwood said in answer to his own question “What is the significance of bad housing on the health of the individual?” Bad housing conditions, he said, are often accompanied by high infant mortality rates — i.e. many babies die. Taking people from bad houses and putting them in good housing has the effect of saving many babies’ lives.
He showed how the standard of housing over Britain as a whole had gone up from 1900 to 1954 by reference to the number of babies under one year old who died. In 1900, 154 out of every 1,000 babies born died before they were a year old. By 1954, this figure had been reduced to 25 per thousand.
Tuberculosis, the biggest killing disease in Mauritius now that malaria has been eradicated, is spread by bad housing. To quote Dr Hailwood, “tuberculosis spreads in overcrowded, ill-ventilated, congested living conditions… No marked reduction can be expected until housing conditions are improved”. And remember that Dr Hailwood was speaking of an advanced country like Britain. If so sweeping a criticism can be made of Britain, how much more can the wretched housing conditions of so many Mauritian workers be criticized? The aim, declared Dr Hailwood, should be to prevent TB rather than to cure it. The most effective contribution towards prevention of TB is to “press forward vigorously with the provision of houses… for the overcrowded and ill-housed”.
Bad housing leads not only to more deaths, but also to greater risk of catching an illness. TB, chest ailments and rheumatic diseases all increase where there is overcrowding of houses — even if they do not kill, they gravely impair the working efficiency of those affected.
Another bad effect of wretched housing conditions is psychological. People in time get used to living among bad conditions, with the result that not just their health, but also their outlook on life in general deteriorates. They get depressed and moody. Young people forced to live in squalid surroundings tend to develop into delinquents and social misfits.
Dr Hailwood’s speech can be easily applied to the circumstances of Mauritius. There is much bad housing all over the island. I have written in Peace News about the shanties of Roche Bois and Cassis in which people are compelled to exist. But those shanty suburbs are not the worst in Mauritius, and conditions on many sugar estates are no better — though if anyone tried to get on the estates are no better — though if anyone tried to get on to the estates to photograph the worker’s housing accommodation, he would be in trouble with the estate managers (unless he were, of course, a toady who was going to photograph only what was favourable to the barons). The connection between bad housing and bad health is undeniable; and the only way to reduce the prevalence of TB in Mauritius is to do as Dr Hailwood suggests — prevent it by better housing conditions. But that means far bigger grants for CD & W funds than are at present allocated; and bigger expenditure of the funds of the Sugar Industry Welfare Fund or housing than is at present contemplated.
Rights of Trade Union Officials
The agreement signed last year between the Sugar Producers and the Amalgamated Labourers provides for union officials to enter estates if they give the management prior notice of their intention to do so, and are on the list of names approved beforehand by managements as accredited union officials. This is a grave restriction on the powers of union officials to protect the rights of the union members. Complaints that the labour laws are being broken by the employers are often made. How can the unions take up these complaints, and investigate them, if they have to say to the management concerned “We’ve had a complaint about conditions on X estate and we’re coming to see into it, if you’ll let us”? Of course the management will say “Come by all means” — and will take good care that the grounds for the complaint have been removed, for just as long as it takes the union representatives to make their investigation.
All old soldiers know what “bull” means — bluff put on for the benefit of some visiting bigwig, to impress him with the efficiency of a particular unit. “Bull” applies on the estates, as long as the managers know when union officials will be coming. This restrictive condition should be removed from future agreements, and union officials should be free to make unexpected, surprise, visits to the estates. Only if managements have to fear sudden, unheralded, visits from the officials at any time, will working conditions improve and will there be any guarantee that agreements will be kept and the labour laws respected.
* Published in print edition on 29 June 2018