Militating for Workers’ Rights

Rajpalsingh Allgoo has recently brought out a remarkable book on Trade Unionism in Mauritius. In our day to day life, little do we realise that we take for granted what has been obtained at great sacrifice, struggle and unflinching fight against the Establishment or Powers that be by others!

So many have lost their jobs in the incessant fight and enduring strikes or even unlimited grèves de la faim! So many have been ruined, with families neglected, all in a noble cause for the improvement in wages and in the quality of life or work situations of thousands of workers in order to build and bring prosperity to the country. The fight is hard, gruesome and incessant. The Trade Union movement originated in Europe in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and spread thereafter to other countries of the world.

The country’s political history has been shaped largely through the movements of trade unionism. The names of Curé, Anquetil, Pandit Hurrypersad Ramnarain, Sharma Jugdambi, Guy Rozemont, Bhageerutty, Pandit Sahadeo, Dr Hossenjee Jeetoo have become part of the history our growing years. And daily, we come across so many trade unionists who carry on the struggle through thick and thin.

In A brief history of Trade Unionism in Mauritius, Raj Allgoo, himself a staunch fighter for workers’ rights and a seasoned Trade Unionist, gives a lucid insight into a sector of our lives which most of us look at without much interest, unless our personal interest is directly concerned. .

Engaging in trade unionism demands a tenacity of force, intrepidity and temerity. It requires long and patient hours of negotiations, with deadlocks in between. But in the end, the insolent might does bend! Or at times a compromise is reached. Sometimes they lead to Commissions of Enquiry.

Yet daily, trade unionists struggle to improve the conditions of life and work of workers, especially the masses in different sectors. One needs tremendous audacity not to cow down or bend your knees in front of insolent might! This has been the unkind cut for Raj Allgoo! I still remember him tied to his hospital bed with chains…. This was a dark episode of his life, especially after having been decorated by the State for his struggles! Another great political leader, who rose up through the trade unionism which shook the very foundation of democracy to even become Prime Minister of the country, said when he sent the SMF forces to squash down the poor workers of a factory: “SMF panne fair pour donne biberon ti baba!”

In A brief history of Trade Unionism in Mauritius Raj Allgoo has taken a laudable initiative of putting together several chapters of trade union history in a book form, easy to read and grasp. The book contains 43 chapters in all with attractive and colourful illustrations within 283 pages.

Just as the Trade Unions were the backbones of the Labour Party, likewise in post independent Mauritius they were the main planks of the rising and powerful MMM political party. They paralysed the harbour, the docks, the public transport system and the CEB!

Mr Allgoo elaborates on the life, work and struggles of Dr Maurice Curé who founded the Mauritius Labour Party: It was the mass meeting Dr Curé and his close collaborators H. Jeetoo and Pandit Sahadeo, organised at the Champ de Mars and attended by 30,000 people including labourers, artisans and small planters on 23 February 1936 which galvanised people and led to economic and constitutional reforms to ameliorate the status of the working classes.

Resolutions voted at that historic trade union meeting were among others;

  1. a)     Minimum wages,
  2. b)     Unemployment benefits,
  3. c)     Old Age Pension,
  4. d)     Universal suffrage for labourers, artisans and small planters,
  5. e)     Freedom to organise Trade Unions,
  6. f)      Workmen compensation and protection against accidents and illness,
  7. g)     Safeguards for women and children.

Eighty years on, today’s trade unions of workers are still pressing for the same types of improvement in working conditions. Following the labour unrest and killings of 1937, it was the Dockers’ strike started on 1st September 1938, which was to bring a new milestone in the Trade Union Movement spearheaded by the fiery language of Emmanuel Anquetil. These were followed by the incessant struggles of Pandit Hurryparsad Ramnarain, Sharma Jugdambi and Chander Bhageerutty. Pandit Hurrynarain organized his memorable meeting of estate sugar workers under a jackfruit tree in front of village baitka at Cottage in August 1938!

Mr Allgoo does not forget to pay homage to modern day trade unionists who fight with the same verve and stamina as their predecessors. He pays particular tribute to Jane Ragoo who ‘’brings a touch of feminism’’ to the male-dominated trade union clan of Mauritius. Lindsey Collen is not forgotten either.

Born on August 22, 2012 in Grand Gaube, a tiny fishermen and labourers’ coastal village, Rajpalsingh Allgoo has been a self-made man. His father was a sirdar at Mapou Sugar Estate. He attended the Roman Catholic Aided Primary School of Grand Gaube.

The discriminative attitude was strife at school. ‘’At the start of the catechism lesson at school, our teacher would order all non-Christians to go out of the classroom by shouting ’Paiens dehors’ ’’! He adds ‘’my Hindu friends and I felt badly insulted… We Hindus were taken for a lower category, a class of second grade citizens, often pejoratively referred to as ‘’Malbars’’ and ‘’Coolies’’. Thus he was removed from the RCA school and admitted to a Government non-RCA school in Goodlands. So he had to go and stay at his uncle Rampertab Allgoo’s place. His uncle was the General Secretary of the Mauritius Labour Party and an influential member of the Mauritius Engineering and Technical Workers Union which later came to be known as the Artisans and General Workers Union, by which name it is still known. . It was here at his uncle’s place that young Raj Allgoo would be exposed to the giants of the trade union and political world: Emmanuel Anquetil, Guy and Phillipe Rozemont, Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, Renganaden Seeneevassen, Aunauth Beejadhur, Harilall Vaghjee, Veerasamy Ringadoo and Raymond Rault. There was no college in the region, and he did not have enough money to travel to Port Louis to have secondary education. So he had to take private tuition and prepare privately for his Cambridge exam in his village. He also joined the Arya Samaj Movement at Grand Gaube at the age of 15. He did several small jobs such as a bread-seller, tailor, relief bus conductor, driver and purchasing officer. In the 1970s he met Honourable Alex Rima, founder of the Organisation de l’Unité des Artisans (OUA) who asked him to join his union. This would change his life definitively.

And this is how he got fully involved in Trade Unionism after the grooming at his uncle’s place with the AGWU.

A brief history of Trade Unionism in Mauritius makes fascinating reading and is available at the Nalanda Bookshop. Published by Star Publications New Delhi, it is edited by Mr Bhismadev Seebaluck. Anybody who wants to delve deep into Mauritius’s political history cannot do so without having a knowledge of its trade union struggles. Raj Allgoo’s book is there to throw that light on this very important aspect of our national life. It is especially good and useful reading for students, politicians, trade union leaders, teachers, social leaders and the public in general.

 

  • Published in print edition on 17 July 2015

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