Set Up A Wages Board!

Mauritius Times – 60 Years

By Peter Ibbotson

Mr Barrett has left Mauritius, but before he went, he made it pretty clear that he was not at all pleased with the local trade union movement. Like Mr Young before him, he feels that the number of trade unions is too high, and that the unions themselves are too small and fragmented. Internal troubles and the management of funds bulk too large in the Mauritian trade union movement; meanwhile, the workers suffer.

Part of the trouble stems from the trade union laws. Ever since the British occupied Mauritius nearly 150 years ago, the employing class have directly or indirectly shaped the laws so as on the one hand to give them full power and protection, and on the other hand to create confusion and rivalry among their opponents. This latter aim is achieved, in the case of trade union legislation, in the law permitting as few as 7 persons to form a trade union. As few as 7! How in the name of all that is wonderful can a union of 7 persons function as a union?

What are the functions of a trade union? The Colonial Department of the British TUC, which celebrates this year its 21st anniversary (and with it 21 years of assistance to colonial trade unions everywhere), lists nine objects as the functions of a union:

1.To secure 100% organisation of workers.

2.To get fair wages and working conditions.

3.To regulate relations and settle disputes between workers and employers, and among the workers themselves, using peaceful means if at all possible.

4. To provide benefits for members.

5.To promote legislation in members’ interests.

6. To further lawful political objects affecting labour.

7. To publish suitable propaganda, including newspapers.

8.To further any federal or international body promoting the interests of trade unionism.

9.To promote the welfare of members in other agreed ways.

At the outset let it be well observed and understood that the TUC sees in the union an organisation which must participate in political affairs.

How, I ask again, can these aims and objects be achieved by unions as small as those permitted to exist by the absurd law of Mauritius? And how can such aims and objects be properly achieved when there are competing unions in many industries and professions? I have elsewhere pleaded for one big union for the teachers of Mauritius; the Primary Teachers’ Union did me the honour of quoting the relevant section of my plea in their 10th anniversary commemorative booklet. But teachers are not the only group of workers who are split among different unions.

Most serious of course is the rivalry for membership between the Agricultural Workers’ Union and the MALA (Mauritius Amalgamated Labourers Association), and between the militant General Port & Harbour Workers’ Union and the Union of Stevedores and Dock Workers, which enjoys the support and recommendation of agents of the Parti Mauricien.

The sugar barons have made it clear, for example, that they recognize only the MALA for bargaining purposes, and they signed an agreement with the Association to cover the calendar year 1957, and, unless it were denounced at two months’ notice, the calendar year 1958 as well. The rates of pay under this agreement, the employers have said, apply only to members of the MALA, but they are as a matter of course paid to all workers – union members or not. But the figures of union growth show that the Agricultural Workers’ Union (not recognised by the employers for bargaining purposes) enjoys more confidence from the workers than does the MALA. Nonetheless, the split among the estate labourers has serious repercussions — instead of combining against the common opponent, the employers, the workers are divided among themselves. They are dissipating resources in inter-union strife instead of using all resources against the employers.

Three choices lie before the sugar industry. First, matters can continue as now. Two unions will continue to exist, one recognised by the employers, one (the more militant) not recognised. The workers as a whole will suffer; only the employers will benefit.

Secondly, the employers can recognise both unions for bargaining purposes, and negotiate wage, etc., agreements with a Joint Board of both unions. This is done in the UK, where agricultural workers are divided among three unions — Agricultural Workers, Transport & General, and General & Municipal — and where the employers negotiate with local wages boards representative of all three unions. This way, the workers would fare better than under the present system; so, the employers would certainly be opposed to it.

Thirdly, the two unions could join forces, and form one big militant union. The unification of two rival unions into one is, however, as the history of trade unionism even in so sophisticated a country as the UK, shows, fraught with difficulties. One of the rival union leaders must be prepared to give way and play second fiddle; and this is often a stumbling block. It is an unnecessary stumbling block; the cardinal principle of trade unionism is that all work for the benefit of all; no-one should be in a trade union if he is there merely to make a name for himself and to get into a position of power. The union leader —be he president, secretary, or treasurer — is there to work for the welfare of his members, not to ride to petty power on their backs.

And unfortunately, the history of trade unionism in Mauritius (as, l will admit, in the early history of trade unionism in the UK) is littered with examples of men who have either used their union office as a means to political power and advancement, or left their union in a fit of pique when matters have not gone all their own way. I well remember the late James Maxton telling me that a working-class leader should not deliberately set out to go to Parliament or to prison; but if his union or political activities should lead him to either place (or even to both) he should accept that as part of the normal course of events. Maxton himself, like Fenner Brockway, sampled both — as part of the natural course of his left-wing political career.

Mauritius needs trade unionists who are prepared to give their lives to the development of trade unionism. Mauritius needs selfless union leaders who are prepared to sink personal differences and rivalries and jealousies in order to merge their small, rival unions into large unions which, by being large, can effectively bargain on their members’ behalf and can bring pressure to bear on the employers.

We don’t want to see, for example, a Union of Grocers’ Shop Assistants, a Union of Chemists’ Shop Assistants, a Union of Drapers’ Shop Assistants, a Union of Butchers’ Shop Assistants, and a Union of Bakers’ Shop Assistants — five separate splinter unions. Instead, we would want to see a Shop Assistants’ Union for workers in all kinds of retail shop. Yet the above is an example of the fragmentation that does occur in the organisation of trade unions in Mauritius; a fragmentation which does nothing but harm to the trade union movement as a whole and also operates against the best interests of the workers concerned.

One of the faults of many Mauritians — and I rely not upon the words of reactionary anti-socialists, but upon the words of many Mauritian socialists and workers with whom, over the last five years, I have had contact either orally or by correspondence — is desire to see their names in print and to hold some public or semi-public office. The trade union laws permit 7 people to form a union. So, 7 people get together and form a union. One becomes president, one secretary, one treasurer, one assistant secretary. The other three form the Executive Committee. The secretary then communicates to the press (daily and periodically) that such-and-such union has been formed and registered, the offices and committee being MM. A, B, C, D, E, F and G. All seven have thus got their names into print, and all seven are office bearers of a sort. Note that they are office bearers; the minuteness of their union and the light (well-nigh non-existent) duties of their offices do not matter — they are office bearers.

This unfortunate attitude is not found among employers’ organisations. The employers are ready to stand together (whatever may be the state of their relations in business) to pay the workers as little as they can. The workers in their turn should take a lesson from the employers, and sink their selfish desire for advancement in the interest of the many. It is the Community, not the Individual, that counts.

But if the trade unions continue weak, and continue to be bedevilled by personal rivalries to the detriment of the movement as a whole, then the Government must be prepared to step in and protect the workers. It is agreed that the labourers on the estates are underpaid — agreed by all except the employers, that is, and by the MALA leaders who, by not giving notice on October 31 to terminate the last wage agreement, tacitly gave consent to the thesis that labourers’ wages wereadequate. Since wages are too low, and since the workers’ union has been unable to get proper wages from the Sugar Producers’ Association, the Government has a duty to step in and see that adequate wages are paid.

Where trade union organisation is incapable of fully representing the interests of the workers, the Government is empowered (and has the moral duty) to intervene and establish rates of pay under the Minimum Wages Ordinance. It has done so for workers in several industries, e.g., passenger road transport, printing and privately employed messengers. As long as the agricultural workers’ trade unions are split and rivals, the workers’ pecuniary interests can adequately be protected only by the establishment of a Minimum Wages Board. And this Board must scrap the inhuman, iniquitous, approach of its pre-war predecessor, which decided that a man need earn only half his monthly income since his wife could earn some money too and he would be able to make a bit more on the side! It must approach its task by making (for publication in full as a sessional paper) a full-scale survey of the finances of the sugar industry, so that we would know at last just how big the estates’ profits are and just where the estates’ money does go. That the estates can afford to pay higher wages is indisputable; just how much higher, though, is something we don’t know and can’t find out — unless the government institutes (as part of the preliminaries to the establishment of a Minimum Wages Board for estate labourers) the full-scaleeconomic survey of the sugar industry that I have adumbrated.

Ideally, the trade unions should develop without the need for government intervention by way of Wages Boards. In the particular circumstances of Mauritius however, there is really no alternative to government action on behalf of the workers. Tacit support to my comment and to my earlier strictures on certain unfortunate aspects of trade unionism in Mauritius, is afforded by Le Flambeau of August 22 which refers to un genre du rivalitéde personnelle imbuing the unions souvent un légermalentendu au sein d’un petit noyau syndicalsuffit pour créer un division complète.J.O. et Tribune Ouvriereechoes the appeal for trade union unity: Mr Barrett… a dit que ce serait trahir la classe ouvrière que de rester plus longtemps ennemi l’un de l’autre. Il a fait un vibrant appel à l’unité.

The last-quotedpaperasksthatsera realisée la fière devise du Trade Unionism United We Stand! Father Dethisein Advancehas said that Mr Barrett was right to ask union leaders to sink their differences and de s’unir au service de la classeouvrière. But while we are waiting for this trade union unity, with the attendant benefits it will assuredly bring to the workers, the labourers and their children are going hungry. The union cannot help. The Government cannot stand by any longer; a Wage Board must be set up and the labourer’s wages must be increased.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 30 December 2022

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