Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago
By Peter Ibbotson
The report on the cement project in Mauritius published as a Sessional Paper (No. 7 of 1956) recently, makes interesting reading. Not least important is the conclusion stated that “Provided that a stable market for cement is maintained, cement may be manufactured economically in Mauritius at competitive prices. The very considerable growth in the national income since the War indicates that for the present, at least, a stable market is likely to be maintained.”
In a nutshell, therefore, it is possible and feasible to establish a cement manufacturing industry. So what does Mr Williams, author of the report, recommend? First, “That the Mauritius Government take steps to interest private enterprise in the cement project”. Why? Why should the Government get private enterprise to undertake the industry? According to Mr Williams’ figures of costs, an excess of revenue over sales in the order of $25,000 (Rs 330,000) can be anticipated; why should Government revenue forgo this? State-owned and state-operated enterprises are no less efficient than private enterprises; if private enterprise were really enterprising, it would have investigated the possibility of a cement industry long ago instead of leaving all the spadework to the Government. It looks as if, should Mr Williams’ recommendation be acted upon, Government will have done all the research while private enterprise will simply step in and reap the reward of Government activity.
No — the Government should not, repeat not, take steps to interest private enterprise in the project. It should, repeat should, take steps to implement the report itself, setting up a Government Cement Board to operate a cement manufacturing industry on the lines laid down by Mr Williams. Mr Williams’ further recommendation, that protection be afforded the industry while it is in its infancy, is again an undue and unnecessary tenderness towards private enterprise. The essence of private enterprise (or as we are told by the defenders private enterprise) is competition. Therefore, why should private enterprise need protection? Let it be unprotected and let it face competition — for, as I have said, competition is the root of private ownership (in theory, let me hasten to add; if it were in fact, there would be no suggestion of protection). In short, the recommendation for protection for the young industry is tantamount to a confession that private enterprise is just not interested in setting up a new industry. (Presumably there are more profits in importing cement).
It is an odd remark, that Government should make a “gesture of faith in the future of Mauritius”. The people who ought to be making gestures of faith in the future are the capitalists; but they are busy exporting their money to South Africa, and banking their money and spending as little as possible in an attempt to create difficult times for a people the majority of whom voted Labour at the last general election, to have time to make gestures of faith in the future of their country. It is noteworthy that Mr Williams has to recommend that steps be taken to prevent land speculation and exploitation of the industry — he knows, evidently, even though he does appear to favour it, the tricks that capitalism gets up to, always ready to make a profit even at the expense of the welfare of the community.
There is, however, in Mr Williams’ report one very strange omission. He gives us a detailed estimate of costs. We are told how much the raw materials will cost, how much transport and oil fuel will cost, and the cost of overheads and fixed charges. We are given estimates, based on percentages of the value of the product, of the cost of operating labour, of clerical and supervisory staff, and of salaried personnel. But nowhere does Mr Williams give an estimate of how many persons that projected industry can be expected to employ. How many operating workers will be needed; how many clerks and supervisors; how many salaried personnel? What grades of operatives will be needed — lorry drivers, obviously; also watchmen, stock-keepers, general labourers; but it is surely of vital interest and importance to know how many persons are likely to be employed so that we may adequately judge how great an impact the new industry would have on the unemployment problem which is just now, of course, coming up to its usual intercrop proportions.
My recommendations, therefore, would be that the Government itself should develop the cement industry as a state-owned enterprise and should tell us how many workers of all grades are likely to be employed as a result.
In his cement project report, Mr Williams says that the wages of operating workers are estimated at 15 per cent of the value of the product. Let us apply this to the sugar industry. In round figures, the average annual production of sugar per worker is 10 tons. Again in round figures, the producer gets for this quantity the sum of £400. By Mr Williams’ 15 per cent formula, therefore, each worker’s annual wages should be in round figures, an average of £60, or 800 rupees. The end-of-crop bonus payable to monthly employed workers is not an integral part of their wages; therefore we ignore it in examining what in fact is the annual income of sugar workers. The highest annual income attainable by a monthly employed field worker is 12 times Rs 64.16; that is, Rs 769.92 which is below the average obtained by application of the 15 per cent rule. And this income is attainable only by a Class I labourer who is employed all the year round. In 1954, there were only 2,110 such men (at the most); so that apart from a few platelayers and class I sirdars, not one monthly employed worker reached the level he should have reached under the 15 per cent formula.
Perhaps Hon. Sauzier, who in the past has been very vocal in defending the wage rate paid by the sugar producers, can shed some light, some detailed light, on what percentage of the gross income received from the sale of the island’s sugar is indeed paid in wages. Not in wages plus end-of-crop bonus) according to the schedules to the agreement governing terms and conditions of employment between the Amalgamated Labourers’ Association and the Sugar Producers’ Association.
It is certain that the workers on the estates are underpaid; the miserable wage grudgingly paid by the planters is insufficient for the workers properly to feed and clothe and house their families. Through insufficient wages and inadequate housing, poverty and malnutrition stalk through Mauritius like a grim spectre; bringing T.B. in their train and taking anaemia wherever they go. It is not the spectre of Communism that haunts Mauritius; it is the spectre of abject poverty and misery. The poor of necessity practise fasting and abstinence because they cannot afford to buy enough food or the most nourishing food for themselves and their children. And, make no mistake, unless the Labour Party retains its strength in the Legislative Council, that misery and poverty will increase for a reactionary-dominated Council will do all it can to benefit itself and its moneyed supporters while letting the people go hang.
* Published in print edition on 31 October 2019