The Luce Report and the Constitution

Mauritius Times 60 Years

By Peter Ibbotson

In England between the two World Wars, the percentage of the labour force unemployed never fell below 10 and was for long periods over 20. The highest was 22 per cent unemployed.

According to Mr Luce, Mauritius had last March 15.1 per cent of its total labour force unemployed. Fantastically, the sugar barons claim that this figure is exaggerated and inaccurate. Mr Nairac has declared in the Legislative Council that far from there being chronic unemployment among the agricultural labourers of Mauritius, there is in fact a grave shortage of such labour! The sugar barons, he had averred, are such philanthropists, such altruists, that “all through this first part of 1958 an organized and an established policy on all sugar estates with factories (was) that all workers offering themselves for work should be given work even if the work had more or less to be invented, even if people had to be shifted at the cost of the estate from their normal district to another district where work is available if there was none available in their district.”

We all know how much credence to place on Hon Nairac’s allegation that Mr Luce’s figures are too high. In fact, an American observer who has recently left Mauritius has to me expressed his belief that Mr Luce’s figure of I5.1 per cent unemployed is, if anything, pitched too low.

In passing, let me say that one part of Hon Nairac’s fantastic speech does ring true; but not for any reason mentioned or intended by the speaker. He said that the estates, early in 1958, were following a policy of giving work to anyone who asked for it, even if the work had to be invented. This policy I can well believe for this reason.

The estates knew that Mr Luce was in Mauritius to investigate unemployment problems. They knew that his Report (whatever it said) would probably be the mainspring of some Government action; they knew, too, that publication by Mr Luce of the facts about unemployment would give excellent anti-capitalist propaganda to the Labour Party for the general election. Therefore, the estates were prepared, for the early part of 1958 said Hon. Nairac (and this period which he mentioned was the period that Mr Luce would be in Mauritius!), to find work for anyone; to make work if need be. The reason was to try and make the unemployment figures as low as possible, so that the sugar barons showed up in the Luce Report in as favourable a light as possible.

Something evidently went wrong with the estates calculations, however, for Mr Luce to find 15.1 per cent unemployment – a figure which would mean some 3.25 million (at least) people out of work in England and Wales. At the end of 1956, the percentage of unemployment in England and Wales was, in fact, only 1.2% that is only unemployed in the whole country (It is fair to say that this figure is expected to be doubled by the end of this year — a sufficient condemnation of the economic policies of the Tory government).

To a short article on the Luce Report which I wrote for Peace News (24 Oct 58), the editor gave the heading “Unemployment in Mauritius among the worst in the world.” Rightly in Advance Lady Hilda Selwyn-Clarke said that “The Luce Report has highlighted the complete failure of the local government to deal with unemployment, overpopulation, gross inequalities of income and urgent educational requirements fair to all communities and adapted to the needs of the Island.” “ACTION NEEDED” declares the title of her article; but she wonders if the Report will be shelved pending a United Nations investigation and report.

With the Government constituted as it is — an Executive Council reflecting the party composition of the Legislative Council — it is obviously impossible for any positive policy to be worked out and implemented which will be unanimously approved by the Executive Council. Nor will the new Constitution break this deadlock. If the 40 elected seats next year go 30 to Labour, 10 the Parti Mauricien, then the Executive Council must reflect this proportionate representation: IPM Minister to 3 Labour Ministers. Obviously, no agreement can be reached on policy; either the minority of Parti Mauricien Ministers will have to compromise, or the majority of Labour Ministers will have to do so. Unless, of course, there are wholesale resignations from the Executive Council when Ministers find they cannot in conscience support a policy which commands itself to a majority of their ministerial colleagues.

Take birth control as an example suppose after the general election the Minister of Health were to propose Government financial support for the Family Planning Association. Judging them by their past record on this topic, the Parti Mauricien (PM) Ministers and MLC’s would all be against such a proposal. Yet if the doctrine of collective responsibility held sway among the Ministers, the PM Ministers would have to give their support to the proposal or else resign.

As it is, however, the new constitution rules out any emergence of collective responsibility; there will be a coalition (and an uneasy coalition at that) which as any student of constitutional government knows is a thoroughly unsatisfactory form of government. To avoid Ministers having to disown their party, or parties having to disown their ministerial members, it becomes necessary for compromise on almost every matter to be reached. And government or legislation by compromise never satisfies anyone, even though it tries to satisfy everyone. (As the aphorism has it, “If you try to please everybody you’ll end up by pleasing nobody, so you may as well please yourself; there’s somebody satisfied for a start.”)

It is clear from Mr Luce’s recommendations that the Government action is unavoidable. He has, for example, said that a Wages Board should be set up for labourers in the sugar industry. Like many Mauritians, workers especially, Mr Luce has little faith in the Amalgamated Labourer’s Association. But to set up a Wages Board means Government action; is unanimity among the Ministers likely on this point? Those Ministers associated with the political wing of the sugar industry, the Parti Mauricien, will be against any proposal for a Wages Board; since such a Board would mean but one thing – higher wages for the workers, and the employers hate having to pay higher wages. And a Wages Board would diminish the importance of the MALA, an importance deriving not from its intrinsic worth and activities but from the fact that it is only union recognised by the Sugar Producers’ Association; which gives support for the belief held in many quarters that it is a company union, or at least very near one. Since unanimity among the Ministers would appear unlikely on this, we would have the undignified spectacle of a Government divided among itself over an important issue.

The alternative would be for some Ministers to resign; but they could be replaced, under the constitution, only by people sharing their views! Otherwise, we would have to have a compromise; and how can one put up with compromises when it is a matter of life and death for the workers? For, mark my words, the wages problem is indeed a life and death matter. Most of those who are in work are, as Mr Luce demonstrated and as many workers’ budgets in the local press have also shown, in a state of semi-starvation, existing on miserable pittances and eating a monotonous diet of rice and vegetables day in, day out, without meat or dairy produce or enough milk.

In the past few years, there has been much attention paid to constitutional development; and some people have said that not enough has been done about economic development. But the latter is linked up with the former; we cannot have proper economic development without the necessary constitutional framework which will enable a Labour government to govern without a proportion of Parti Mauricien Ministers as well. For, as long as there are Parti Mauricien Ministers in the Executive Council, there can be no material progress on behalf of the common man.

5th Year – No 222
Friday 7th November 1958

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