By Sada Reddi
The workers who formed that first trade union could be described as an aristocracy of labour, yet their initiative is worth remembering for it did provide lessons for workers’ organisations in the ensuing years
Guy Rozemont, Pt. Sahadeo, Kenneth Baker, Emmanuel Anquetil, Partab Allgoo, with members of the Mechanical Engineering and Technical Workers’ Union
In ancient Greek mythology, Sysyphus was condemned for eternity to push a boulder uphill, only to see it roll down again. The efforts of the working class in fighting capitalism look very much like the labour of Sysyphus. The efforts are unending, but the working class has a vast reservoir of strength and resilience to pursue the struggle to fight for its rights and for a better and just society. Two days ago the country’s workers celebrated May Day, and it is worth recalling the early efforts of workers to set up the first trade union in Mauritius in 1921 which we associate with Willy Moutou.
It is well known that ever since Mauritius was settled during the Dutch period in the 17th century, slaves had resorted to all kinds of struggles to fight oppression and protect their rights. The struggles continued during the French and British periods by both slaves and indentured labour. Today with increasing job insecurity, stressful workplace environment, contract employment and growing inequality, workers are realizing that they are not getting any better but even worse. The workers in the 1920s found themselves in a similar situation.
There was a sugar boom as a result of rising sugar prices and there was so much wealth in the country that the President of the Chamber of Agriculture could say they did not know what to do with so much money in their hands. Yet the workers, who were still in a better position compared to the mass of labourers, found that their situation had so worsened that they even had to go on strike in 1920. The situation got worse in 1921 with the defeat of the retrocessionist candidates particularly Dr Maurice Cure and Dr Edgar Laurent in Port-Louis. It was in that same year that the first trade union was founded by Willy Moutou and his friends.
At the end of January 1921, Michel Georges and Willy Moutou went to see Dr Edgar Laurent to get his advice and support for the creation of a trade union and to lead the movement. Dr Laurent raised the matter with Arthur Rohan and invited a few workers on a Sunday to discuss the matter further. Arthur Rohan explained that strikes were not allowed in Mauritius and the main aim of setting up a trade union was to protect the interests of workers; they had the least intention to organize a strike. With the objectives of the union clearly stated, a workers’ meeting was scheduled.
The meeting was held on 6th March 1921 in the Town Hall and was attended by 60 workers. It was a short meeting lasting about 20 minutes. It was reiterated that the organisation had no political objectives, and a provisional bureau was elected with Willy Moutou as general Secretary, and Arthur Rohan as General Treasurer for the different branches. On 19th March, a communiqué entitled ‘Un Appel aux classes laborieuses de Maurice’ appeared in newspapers.
Meanwhile Dr Laurent had been working on ideas of how he could help the workers and he had written to Arthur George Bottomley, a British Labour politician, who passed on the information to Arthur Henderson, the leader of the British Labour Party. Henderson wrote to Dr Laurent sending some literature on how to go about setting up the union, and even suggested the creation of a political organisation. He also forwarded a template for the setting up of a trade union. Henderson wrote:
‘I think that members of the colony may be interested in organizing themselves on a political and industrial basis, and so accordingly I am sending you under separate cover a representative sample of our literature with explanatory notes on the constitution and organisation of the party’.
Not only had Dr Laurent received copies of statutes of the trade union from the British Labour Party, the latter party had also passed a resolution at its conference in Scarborough between 22-25 June 1920 ‘to cooperate with labour and socialist organisations with a view to promote the higher standard of social and economic life for the working population of the respective countries.’
Another meeting was organized at a school in Souillac Street and was authorized by the Commissioner of Police on the condition that police officers would be present at the meeting. The meeting was presided by Dr Laurent, with General Secretary Willy Moutou and the General treasurer, Arthur Rohan. About 600 artisans were present, mainly artisans of Plaines Lauzan and big workshops of the capital. Twenty policemen were also present under the command of Inspector Ross. sergeant Major Fitzgibbon took notes.
Later police statements were also taken from the main speakers at the meeting including Dr Laurent. The latter did not speak much in his introductory speech, but merely expressed his support to the workers initiative, and given their commitment and determination to set up an organization, he pledged his wholehearted support to the movement. Dr Laurent was, what I had earlier referred to in the course of a lecture at St Andrew’s school in 1993, ‘The People’s Doctor’, because of his dedication during the influenza epidemic that hit the island in 1919 and his service to the poor; I also learnt from my mother that he was very popular with the people and most families would turn to him for the treatment of any illness.
The main speakers of the day were Willy Moutou, Arthur Rohan and Joseph Zuel of the Central Printing Establishment. An old worker, Mr Piarroux, who had already retired, was unanimously invited to speak a few words. Willy Moutou showed himself a determined person, fearless, and who would not mince his words but with a commitment to the welfare of his fellow workers.
Arthur Rohan, though not a worker, was committed to the cause of the workers. He dwelt of the inequality in a society where prosperity was for the few while the workers were poorly paid, poorly fed and poorly housed. He put forward his faith that a union was a sine qua non for the welfare of the workers and pointed to the fact that in many countries workers were facing similar conditions as before the advent of trade unions. In considering the welfare of the workers he had in mind a number of measures: insurance against accidents, old-age pension, education for worker’s children, etc.
Rohan explained that the sense of cooperation and team spirit that informed their daily working lives should provide the basis of the unity to fight for their rights and welfare. He concluded that it was sad for a country where there were associations for growing flowers, for hunting and for rearing dogs, and yet there was none for the workers. Joseph Zuel spoke of the poor conditions of the workers, low wages and prejudices against workers.
It could transpire from the various speeches that many people had ridiculed the attempt to set up a union; the arguments put forward were that workers did not have the maturity to run it, and a union had no raison d’être. Those arguments were refuted. It was pointed out that Mauritian workers were held in highest esteem by foreign engineers working in Mauritius, especially those with experience of workers in other colonies. The need for unity was highlighted, and the defeat of Germany by the allies was held up as an example of what unity could achieve. Joseph Zuel reminded workers how trade unions in South Africa had resulted in the improvement of the workers’ lot.
At the end of the meeting, a resolution was voted unanimously for the setting up of the trade union, which was thereafter given the name of National Trade Union of Mauritius and representing seamen, firemen, drivers, industrial and commercial employees. It had seven objectives: to provide legal assistance to its members, to provide relief to workers and their families as a result of accidents at work, to assist members whose interests had been compromised due to services extended to the union, to fight for fair wages, to improve and protect workers’ interests, and to promote trade union principles among the working class.
In setting up the first trade union, the workers had come to realize, in the words of Rohan, ‘that only the workers could improve their conditions and defend their rights’. This is how the first union was set up. Dr Laurent while giving his support and commitment to this initiative did realize that there would be setbacks. He told the workers that there could be setbacks and there was a long way to go before trade unionism gets established. However with the setting up the trade union, nothing would be lost, and their efforts would facilitate others and other unions to rise and fight against injustice and egoism.
The workers who formed that first trade union could be described as an aristocracy of labour, yet their initiative is worth remembering for it did provide lessons for workers’ organisations in the ensuing years.
* Published in print edition on 3 May 2019