Right from the Dutch period the worker brought to Mauritius, whether coerced, voluntarily or involuntarily, has always sought to fight for human dignity and freedom. In spite of the odds against him, he never gave up and has continued to fight up to the present and will do so in the future. This consciousness of the worker to resist exploitation whether in an economic system which was pre-capitalist or capitalist, was translated in various forms of action depending on the context and the resources available. Today an enlarged and wider consciousness has become an imperative so that he can face the multiple challenges of modern life and to build a new society.
In South African literature the concept of Black worker consciousness as defined by historians like Ian R. Phimister and C. Van Onsenlen refer first to the consciousness and concern of workers to maximise wages and move towards highest pay employment centres to combat the law. Secondly, to combat coercive legislation workers expressed their discontent not directly ‘but in the nooks and crannies of the day to day work situation’. This response was not different from slave resistance in America which ‘side by side with ordinary loafing went deliberate wastefulness, slowdowns, feigned illness, self-inflicted injuries and the well-known abuse of livestock and equipment’.
In Mauritian history we are all familiar with marooning and vagrancy which has marked colonial history during the Dutch, French and the British period. Not only did slaves escape to the forest as soon as they landed during the Dutch occupation of Mauritius, slave revolt was carried out by slaves, convicts and freemen of different ‘nationalities’. As Megan Vaughan has reminded us, in 1695 there were 11 of them – from Madagascar, Bali, Batavia, Bengal, Goa, Mozambique, Malabar, Padang and Patti. Direct and indirect forms of protest and resistance took many forms despite repression by planters assisted by colonial and religious authorities.
Even the free artisans from France were severely repressed under Labourdonnais, and one worker had to get his wife to write to the authorities in France to secure his release as he could not do it himself. So he wrote to her: ‘If you want me to come you will have to ask the (authorities) since we are not allowed to make such request, and if we do they tie us to a cannon on a cheval de bois in the dungeons and we see nothing but this unjust treatment…and so I ask you to use your friends to get me out of this country. Our grandparents too were severely repressed and school-going children were brainwashed by reciting the first lesson in their textbook the ideology of the capitalist class – God is great. One has to work for one’s bread.’ Even when the Code pénal prevented workers from combining to improve their wages, worker consciousness flowed into new channels in the form of worker organisations, friendly and mutual societies before the advent of trade unions. Dr Cure’s Société de Bienfaisance was a disguised form of trade union when the latter movement was still illegal.
In the 20th century, it was on the initiative of Edgar Laurent that the first trade union of railway workers was set up. He had gathered some railway workers in Curepipe and provided them with a template for a trade union organisation. Wilfrid Moutou set up the first union, which was against the law. It was tolerated because railway workers constituted an ‘aristocracy of labour’ which was relatively harmless, though the union did go on strike on at least three occasions.
The best example of worker consciousness among labourers before the law on industrial associations was passed is the march of labourers on Union Sugar Estate in 1937. It was not a strike nor a spontaneous response on the part of labourers. It was a carefully planned march; the roads the protesters were to take were known in advance, and coordination took place among the various villages. When police blocked the roads they were to take, they used other bypass routes to reach Union Factory.
The employers had already been informed by the police on the eve; they armed themselves and were faced with what was a ‘threatening crowd’ according to Magistrate Osman. The employers panicked and fired on the labourers. One artisan, who was working on that day, explained to me in the 1990s that the proprietor of the estate had refused to give an increase in their wages which was given by other estates. Moreover, apparently he had told them that there was no question of increase and if they wanted to supplement their food there were ‘songes’ on his estate which were freely available. The workers were outraged by this attitude for he had violated the moral economy of the labourers and they wanted to meet him to put their case.
After the setting up of industrial associations in 1938, worker consciousness moved towards trade union consciousness. Apart from individuals who continued to stand up for their rights, it was trade unions which took up the challenge of advancing the cause of the working classes throughout the colonial period. In the 1970s great efforts were made to turn the unions into a class-based organisations with mixed results, as trade unionists sought to pursue reformist and parliamentary strategies albeit more realistic, to safeguard the rights of workers.
In the 21st century, while trade unions continue to defend and protect workers in a world where the latter have to grapple with the challenges of globalisation and technological revolution, workers need to expand their horizons and develop an expanded worker consciousness. This would empower them but at the same time equip trade unions to better protect, defend and improve the welfare of workers. The challenges facing workers, whether they do blue or white-collar jobs, are daunting. With jobless growth, workers have become easily replaceable, and the rupee in the pocket is no longer the same. Poor working conditions, alienation and harassment are widespread in the workplace. The worker at the computer suffers from musculoskeletal disorders and eye problems which are detrimental to health. The girl at the checkout in the supermarket is as alienated as the factory worker when she has to spend a whole day at the checkout with ‘Bonjour, Scan, Bag, Payment and Bye’.
Even in the past the workers did not fight only for wages, they sought better working conditions, better living conditions and better health protection. The worker has his own conception of fairness, justice, right and wrong – what historian EP Thomson has called the moral economy of workers. Today, workers continue to fight for these rights when their workload is increased in the name of productivity, when they are given punitive transfers, are discriminated against or robbed of their wages to cut labour cost.
These daily struggles are important for the worker individually, for they transform him as he refuses to become a cog in the production machine or a cipher in the organisation. They are also important collectively for the rest of the workers, for they provide models of resistance and point to workers the norms that they should aspire to and which should become the norms of society so that each worker can develop his human potential to the maximum. In so doing the individual struggle contributes to the collective struggle as workers identify themselves with these struggles, develop solidarity, sharpen their consciousness and see ultimately a commonness of purpose for workers and for society as a whole.
Given the interconnectedness of society, workers’ struggles cannot be limited to workplace problems and will necessarily extend to other issues. Workers cannot ignore the fact that their leisure time has been reduced. The environment has become polluted and coal ash dumped here and there is lethal for the health of one and all just like asbestos and pesticide may have been responsible for the high incidence of cancer.
The streets have to be claimed back for pedestrians and the protection of consumers is an ongoing struggle. Efforts to tackle drug addiction and alcoholism must be among our priorities. All this makes workers’ education crucial for the present and the future of society. All these struggles which are being waged daily on the shop floor or in the office whether at the individual level, at the level of the community or within workers’ organisations show us in practical terms what can be achieved, what new norms can emerge, in short a new moral economy for the workers where the final aim is the emancipation of one and all.
* Published in print edition on 1 May 2015