Mauritius Times – 60 Years
By Peter Ibbotson
In the anniversary issue on August 15, I referred to the creed of the democratic socialist. He, I said, believes that everyone should as far as is possible have equal opportunity for self-fulfillment. I suggested that this is denied in Mauritius. Indeed, Mauritius illustrates par excellence all the ugly features of the undemocratic society.
Take the distribution of incomes, for example. From the report of the Income Tax Department for 1956-57 we learn that only about 6,000 individuals are liable to pay income tax; yet the number of persons in gainful employment is estimated at some 170,000. This handful of taxpaying individuals shares a gross income of over Rs 80 million; on average, that is well more than Rs 15,000 each. From the report referred to, it is calculable that 2,500 of this handful are married; between them they have 442 children who are being educated outside Mauritius. Each married couple has, on average, slightly more than two children only.
So, a handful of citizens enjoys incomes of Rs 15,000 a year and more; and has small families, being in many cases able to afford education abroad. What a contrast with the experience of the great majority of their fellow countrymen, who (when they are working) exist on a miserable pittance and eke out a daily life of poverty, having from hand to mouth and dreading the expense of a funeral, another with, or the wage-earner’s illness. Twenty-five years ago, just these same things were dreaded by the average British weekly wage-earner). Look at the poor person’s budget which André Masson gave in Le Mauricien on September 11:
80 lb rice @ 30c. 24.00
3 lb black lentils (6 days) 1.95
2 lb dholl (4days) 1.20
4 lb peas (8 days) 2.60
Vegetables (13 days) 12.00
3/4 milk per day 9.30
5 bread rolls per day 10.85
1 lb tea per month 3.10
24 lb sugar per month 3.84
3 lb soap 1.80
3 lb salt .30
½ a quarter-litre of oil
per day 9.00
Total Rs 113.94
As Masson points out, this man’s family (he has a wife and two children) eats no fish, no meat, no eggs, no dairy products (butter or cheese). The budget shows nothing for clothes; no luxuries such as a few cigarettes for the man, a cinema show for the children, a bus-ride for mother. Expenditure on food has to be calculated by the day… what is the family’s daily food anyway? Not quite 2 ½ Ib of rice, half-a-pound of some vegetable or other, 1¼ loaves, 3/4 lb sugar and 3/4 milk. And that diet goes on, day in day out, month after month; what monotony there must be. And only one pound of tea to last 30 or 31 days for the two adults and two children. One wonders how the mother can make the daily ration of food go round.
Yet in a way that poor man is fortunate. He spends Rs 114 a month on rent, food, fuel and light — suggesting that he has that monthly amount of money coming in. But many workers haven’t as much as Rs 114 a month; and those who have more than that sum, often have more than two children to feed. Whereas the few income-tax payers have an average yearly income of Rs 15,000, with an average of fewer than 3 children each, the mass of wage earners are lucky to touch Rs 3,000 a year: and they average well over 3 children each.
Look at the figures for wages given in the Year-Book of Statistics. In 1956, the minimum wage payable to a class I field or factory worker was (exclusive of over-time) Rs 81.19 per month; i.e., Rs 974.28 per year. The average wages of skilled men in the factories ranged from Rs 48.87 per month (Rs 586.44 per year) for mill drivers class Il to Rs 202.63 per month (Rs 2,431.56 per year) for chief motor mechanics. Yet in the tax year 1955-56, the 6,369 individuals liable to pay income tax shared a total income of Rs 96.5 millions; that is, Rs 15,175 each.
The gap between the wages of the weekly or monthly paid manual worker and the salary of the white-collar worker or the manager is too wide. It should be narrowed. No one suggests that the gross income of the well-paid people should be reduced: what is suggested is that the incomes of the lowly-paid workers should be raised. Or perhaps the real value of their wages can be increased, by for example the subsidising of the price of the foodstuffs they commonly buy.
What is certain is that slowly but inexorably the living standards of the lowest-paid workers have fallen over the last 10 years as prices have risen and wages have not kept pace; the unexpected rise in the price of tea is another blow to the poor man’s budget. When you’re spending Rs 114 a month on food, carefully calculating your food by the day, an increase of 55 cs. in the price of tea is calamitous whereas if your income is reckoned in thousands of rupees per month, that same increase Is but a fleabite. Everything is relative; except the misery attached to the low wages paid to the men on whom the prosperity of Mauritius ultimately depends — the workers on the estates.
That the estate workers are under-paid is undeniable and equally undeniable is the fact that the sugar barons overpay, and give disproportionately large privileges to the état major. But the men who do the real work are ground down in poverty and lifelong misery.
Not only are Incomes badly distributed, but wealth is disproportionately distributed also. Take the number of successions and duty payable as evidence. In 1956, the Yearbook of Statistics shows the General Population made 209 declarations and paid Rs 1,334,000 in duty — an average of Rs 6,400 per declaration. But Indo-Mauritians made 408 declarations and paid only Rs 99,000 in duty — an average of only Rs 243 per declaration, or one-twenty-fifth that of the average General Population’s declaration. So, wealth goes by race — and so does income. The Indo-Mauritian is, nearly always, in a low-paid insecure job; and he sees education as the only way out of the morass of misery.
Yet the scales are weighted against anyone who hopes to make his way in the world up the educational ladder. Security by tradition means a government job, for which five passes in School Certificate or GCE are necessary as a qualifying minimum. To get this valuable piece of paper, the passport to white-collar security, attendance at a government or aided secondary school is virtually necessary for the non-aided secondary schools have very indifferent records in these all-important exams. And entrance to the government secondary schools, although theoretically equal to all, depends on the scholarship exam which is weighted in favour (because of the compulsory French paper) of the urban-dwelling child of French speaking parents.
The non-French-speaking parents whose children are denied entrance to the secondary schools make great sacrifices to pay fees at private secondary schools, but often to little avail. The GCE candidates at these schools seldom make the grade necessary for government (and therefore secure) employment; and in any case, as the Director of Education has recently warned the country, the immediate future holds dim prospects for the majority of secondary school leavers. Of an estimated 10,450 in the next three years, he says, only about one in nine can look forward with any degree of confidence to a government, or private enterprise white-collar post.
Of the disappointed ones, some will no doubt take up teaching, though taking up teaching faute de mieux is not the right frame of mind for intending teachers. As I have said in the Mauritius Times before now, Mauritius needs more and different facilities for secondary education; it needs also that the conditions of access to secondary education be revised so as to afford true equality of educational opportunity to children of equal talents, be they children of rich Franco-Mauritians or children of poverty-stricken Indo-Mauritian workers in the canefields. At present even the dullest child of wealthy parents has the educational edge over the brightest child of poor parents; wealth, not ability, still determines one’s place in the economic and social hierarchy of Mauritius.
The maldistribution of incomes and wealth, and the inordinate inequalities in educational opportunities in present-day Mauritius make it imperative that the people show a united front at the next General Elections and vote into power a Labour Government. They must not let themselves be deluded by the specious promises of reactionary leaders nor by cheapjack demagogic pseudo socialist turncoats who put self-first, self-second, self-third, and service to the community a very bad fourth. (In fact, service to the community often, in the case of these arrivistes, takes fifth place; service to the Parti Mauricien coming fourth).
Only a spirit of socialism, translated into positive action, will ever overcome the aspects of anti-democracy which bedevil Mauritius. That spirit exists in many quarters; it remains but for the action to come — as it must after the 1959 elections.
5th Year – No 217
Friday 3rd October, 1958
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