Twenty-Five Years of ‘Quadragesimo Anno’

Mauritius Times 60 Years Ago – 3rd Year – No 98 – Friday 22th June 1956 

This year sees the 25th anniversary of the consecration as a bishop of the Rt Rev. Hugh Otter-Barry, the Anglican Bishop of Mauritius. But an exceedingly important 25th anniversary – a silver jubilee – is also celebrated this year: the 25th anniversary of the papal encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, “On the Reconstruction of the Social Order”. This encyclical was itself, of course, written in the 40th anniversary year of the first great social encyclical, the Return Novarum (15.5.1891).

These two papal encyclicals comprise the teaching of the Catholic Church on social matters. The first encyclical, indeed, started a Christian social revolution with its bold declaration that “A small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the labouring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery”. And after 65 years, that declaration is still true of the labouring masses of Mauritius. The sugar workers are underpaid and have little social welfare to help them in times of need. Now, there are thousands of unemployed persons in Mauritius. Thousands of labourers are either workless or are working for only 3 days per week for wages ranging from Rs 1.40 cs to Rs 2.56 cs per day. Owing to the centralization of sugar mills, hundreds of artisans cannot find a decent job. The plight of ex-servicemen is indeed painful. What is being done to help them? Yet the island is prosperous – years of bumper sugar harvests with gua-ranteed markets and a guaranteed price have poured rupees into the coffers of the sugar planters; if they are the big planters, that is.

For the big planters have made the money out of the last few years of plenty. The small growers have scraped along as usual, living from hand to mouth, unable to save against the lean years that may come. And the labourers are existing on the meagre pittance that the planters allot them. What do we find? Annual sugar production averages 8½ to 9 tons of sugar per person employed. This sugar is sold about 490 rupees a ton, i.e. a worker’s average annual production is for Rs 4,165-4410. Yet what are the average wages of plantation workers? Class I men get Rs 79.38 a month, Class II men get Rs 59.93. Class I women get Rs 52.64. Thus men get a maximum of Rs 960 for 12 months work and in those 12 months they produce sugar which is sold for over Rs 4,100. To the sugar barons, their surplus labour is worth more than Rs 3,100. And what is the result of this economic set-up, revealed by figures showing payment of income tax? Out of the 525,000 people of Mauritius, only 3,843 had an income large enough to pay income tax in 1953-54, yet 17 companies had an income of over Rs 1,000,000.

This state of affairs supports the belief that Mauritius still exemplifies – though perhaps in a limited form – the state of affairs condemned by Pope Leo XIII in 1891: a few rich men battening (like leeches?) on the backs of the many poor. In his condemnation, Pope Leo was of course only echoing the uninhibited bluntness of Saint Chrysostom: “the rich man is a thief.”

The principles underlying the two Catholic social encyclicals are the sanctity of the family, the dignity of human labour, and recognition of the fact that the labourer is worthy of his hire. He must not be exploited. He must be paid a wage which takes into account his family responsibilities. He has rights, but at the same time he has duties towards his employer. But the employer must not forget that while he also has rights, he must not his shirk duties towards the workers he employs. An employer has the right to expect a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay; but he must not object if he doesn’t get a fair day’s work if he doesn’t pay a fair day’s wage.

In the encyclical Return Novarun employers are expressly enjoined not to exploit their employees, not to look upon them as bondsmen, but to respect their dignity as human beings. Also Pope Leo declares (and this is especially topical in the present situation in Mauritius, with so many thousands out of work yet with Mr Lennox-Boyd complacently saying to questioners in the House of Commons, that they are only a two thousand or so out of work and registered at the exchanges): “Wage-earners… should be specially cared for and protected by the Government. Then the richer class have many ways of shielding themselves”. This dictum seems to have been forgotten by the nominees and other representatives of the employing class in the Legislative Council. Let them take it to heart, and remember while so doing that no-one who professes and calls himself a Christian – as so many of the nominees and conservative members do – can ignore the needs of those who are less fortunate than himself. In the New Testament, we find in the story of the Good Samaritan that the rich would not help the poor unfortunate who was set upon by robbers; it was the “foreigner”, the despised Samaritan, who gave help.

What do we find in Mauritius? There are thousands of unemployed. There are thousands of unemployed. There is no work for many of them. Government does not seem able to help. If it can help, it doesn’t seem to be trying very hard to carry its powers into effect. Who then is espousing the cause of the Mauritian unemployed? Not the Conservatives, but Labour. Not those who, in the eyes of le baron de Mallefille are the chosen people; not the Franco-Mauritian capitalists. O no – it is those who, in the eyes of the same cheapjack journalist are the outcasts – the despised Hindu and Coloured leaders.

Yet if they lived according to the words and spirit of the Popes’ encyclicals, NMU and his co-religionists would be exerting all the pressure they could to get the government to provide work for the unemployed; or, if work is not available, to provide schemes of unemployment benefit. But no; from NUM and his fellow economaniacs we have nothing but calls for economy in government spending – so that the impact of taxation on the sugar barons’ profits is lessened, no doubt.

The huge profits, sweated from the brows of the artisans and plantation labourers (who have to eke out their miserable wage with the profit from cowkeeping and selling milk – and risk being maimed by mantraps or nails placed in bits of rubber or leather or wood and hidden in the grass whenever they go and collect fodder) by the barons contradicts the teaching of the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno whose 25th anniversary we celebrate this year. In it Pope Pius XI has said: “Wage rates must be regulated with a view to the economic welfare of the whole people” and he suggests that schemes should be put into operation whereby workers have a share in the profit made.

With much of the content of the social encyclicals, the Socialist will agree. With some he will disagree. In practice in the UK many leading trade unionists are Catholics who try to put into operation the principles of the encyclicals: George Woodcock, assistant secretary of the TUC; Sir Tom O’Brien, a former chairman of the TUC; Bob Edwards of the Chemical Workers’ Union; and MP’s such as Robert Mellish, a dockers’ union official. In a country such as Mauritius, where the great employers are by and large members of the church which gave to the world these social documents, it should be rubbed into those employers that their present practices of underpaying their workers is quite antagonistic to the teachings of the faith they profess to uphold. And if 1956 should see the beginning of a square deal for the Mauritian worker, it will be a fitting celebration of the jubilee year of Quadragesimo Anno.


* Published in print edition on 13 April 2018

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