Of Indenture and Sugar

The commemoration of 2nd November is meant to regularly remind us that the struggle for justice and for one’s rightful place is an ongoing one

Perhaps the cruellest irony of the indentured labour saga, which was geared to the production of sugar, is that sugar is now considered to be the number one enemy of health. Is that the reward for the hundreds of thousands of workers who were lured away from India to Mauritius as part of the ‘Great Experiment’ whose ‘success’ then took many more elsewhere across the world to break their loins in the service of King Sugar?

In fact, in medical circles sugar is now being indicted as the primary cause of most if not all the non-communicable diseases. It has displaced cholesterol as the main culprit that is responsible for diseases of the heart and circulation, and we have gone as far as to label it as ‘toxic sugar’! Who would have thought that we would reach this day? Our ancestors must be turning in their graves, at least those of them that were buried.

Heart disease, stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, diabetes: you name it, and the medical finger is now pointed to sugar as the driver of the rise in the incidence of these conditions. Sugar is no doubt addictive, and we are increasingly consuming more of it packed in fizzy drinks and juices, many other kinds of preparations designed to titillate the taste buds more and more – from chocolate bars to high calorie sticks, cakes, cookies and biscuits, pastries, smoothies, ice-creams: the reader can add to the list!

Incredibly, there are even protagonists who think that we should not consume sugar at all, at least not the refined sugar that we have been used to if we want to save ourselves from all the diseases mentioned above, but sugar that comes naturally in fruits and other natural source is fine. I have mentioned in an article that I wrote about Bali a couple of months ago that they use palm honey there, which is collected in the agro-forests adjoining the villages where a majority of Balinese live, instead of sugar. It would be interesting to carry out a study there of the indigenous population as yet untouched by modernity to find out the incidence of the aforementioned diseases. Who knows that we may come up with some surprises.

But to be realistic, I cannot imagine a scenario where sugar is eliminated altogether from our modern, ‘civilised’ way of life. Our best bet is to cut down as much as we possibly can, and where possible substitute honey. The reality is that, whatever we do, one group of diseases goes on the decline, and another one comes along to remind us of our mortality. We cannot escape, do whatever we will. So, ice cream anyone?

The struggle goes on…

This sweet note notwithstanding, we must not sink into complacency and harbour the illusion that the past is now behind us. It may be for many, but certainly not for all. Indentured labour, like the abolition of slavery, may have formally ended, but what one may term the ‘indentured mindset’ is far from having left us altogether, and not only in Mauritius. It required the lady school cleaners to come out in public, and eventually go on hunger strike, for the rest of their countrymen to realise for the first time the pittance that they were being paid as monthly salary for so many years. What do Rs 1500 represent in this the 17th year of the 21st century? The truth be told: for a household, NOTHING.

So now they and their union representatives have to wage a protracted battle before they are given anywhere like a decent salary, one that will allow them to rise above mere survival level and cherish the hope, like all their compatriots, of living a decent life, in dignity.

As from the time of indenture – slavery too for that matter – the story is the same: prosperity of the few through exploitation and deprivation of the many, who are the ones who toil the most and the hardest, under the harshest of conditions. Across the world the general level of prosperity may have expanded to cover a larger size of the population, but that still leaves many millions to still lag behind – inequalities are rising, the gaps are widening. From talking about the rich and the poor, it’s now the super rich – the top 1% in all countries who, according to Thomas Piketty, own the largest share of national wealth and control the rest – and the others.

The situation of the school cleaners may be akin to that of many workers in industrialized countries, the UK for example, who are hired on a zero-hour contract basis. This is defined as a type of contract between an employer and a worker, where the employer is not obliged to provide any minimum working hours, while the worker is not obliged to accept any work offered. It has raised a lot of controversies, because while it may be suitable for some categories of people, e.g. retirees and students, it is not so for the vast majority of people who need to enter the workforce on a more regular basis and earn a guaranteed income so as to plan for a more certain future.

Further, ‘workers subject to zero-hour contracts are vulnerable to exploitation as they may be denied work at any time for any reason, including declining to respond to a demand to work. A refusal to work in any one instance for any reason can result in a prolonged period of lack of work.’ Such contracts may leave millions of workers trapped in low-paid, highly insecure jobs, where mistreatment is the norm and where there is limited prospect of escape.

If this can happen in advanced countries, the picture in less developed ones such as ours can surely not be any better. If we look through the apparent glitter to behind the scenes, we will likely discover that a sizeable proportion of the descendants of slaves and indentured workers are not doing as well as their other compatriots. The commemoration of 2nd November is meant to regularly remind us that the struggle for justice and for one’s rightful place under the sun is an ongoing one, and that those who have ‘made it’ must not abandon those who have not been as lucky, and must find ways and means to help pull them up.


*  Published in print edition on 1 November 2017

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