The Historical Significance of Labour Day

The Genesis of the Mauritian Trade Unions & the Condition of the Mauritian Workers during the 1940s

The First of May was celebrated for the first time as a public holiday in Mauritius in May 1950, thanks largely to the efforts of Guy Rozemont, Dr Maurice Cure, Pandit Sahadeo and Emmanuel Anquetil.

Labour Day is a day of special significance for Mauritian workers who for many years have struggled for their social, political and economic rights.

One of the most important periods in the struggle of the Mauritian working class was the 1940s which saw the emergence of the first organized trade unions. It was a time when class consciousness and class struggle became firmly entrenched in the worldview, ideology and actions of the Mauritian workers. It was also an era when, because of labour protests and unrests, the local British colonial administration had to reform the labour laws in order to meet the demands of the Mauritian working class.

The Report of Major Granville

In 1941, Major Granville Orde Browne, the Labour Adviser to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, was sent by the Colonial Office to investigate the social and economic conditions of labourers in Mauritius, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Malaya (modern-day Malaysia).

Between January and February 1941, the British army officer, who specialized in labour issues, stayed in Mauritius for several weeks where he studied the local labour situation. He mentioned to the local colonial authorities that the wages of Mauritian labourers were lower than those in the colonies of the British West Indies such as Trinidad, Jamaica and British Guyana. Major Orde Browne indicated that the wages of sugar estate labourers had remained almost unchanged for many years and that the output per labourer was lower because of malnutrition, lack of medical care and poor health condition.

In his report, he made it clear that the colony had a poorly paid, undernourished and sickly population which was only able to achieve a limited amount of work. In 1943, his report was published by the Colonial Office in London and forwarded to Mauritius.

In July 1943, Twining, the Director of Labour, sent a confidential letter to Colonial Secretary Moody in which he stated:

“Now that Major Browne’s Report has been received and published the time seems opportune for the introduction of necessary legislation.”

In fact, the recommendations of the Orde Browne Report had been known for several months. It was only during the second half of 1943 and first half of 1944 that concrete steps were taken by Governor Mackenzie-Kennedy to implement some of its recommendations.

The Advent of Kenneth Baker

It is interesting to note that Section 19 of the Industrial Associations Ordinance of May 1938 was amended through Article 4 of Ordinance No.13 of 1944 which empowered “the Director of Labour to appoint a Conciliation Board in the case of a dispute relating to the discharge of, or disciplinary action against an individual employee when the dispute, in the opinion of the Director of Labour, involves an apparent act of justice.”

By then, the Council of Government had already set up a Labour Advisory Board to help the Labour Department deal with the various problems of the Mauritian workers. In February 1944, there were four individuals who served on that board, namely Raoul Harel, Raymond Bérenger (the father of Paul Berenger, leader of the MMM), Dr. Edgar Millien, and Dr S. Ramgoolam (the father of Navin Ramgoolam, leader of the Labour Party).

In May 1944, Governor Mackenzie-Kennedy approached the Secretary of State for the Colonies to obtain the services of a trade union adviser to help with the organising of the trade unions in the colony, after the dismal failure of the industrial associations between 1939 and 1941.

Exactly a year later, in May 1945, the Secretary of State for the Colonies fulfilled the British governor’s request by sending Kenneth Baker, a Trade Union Adviser, to Mauritius. Between 1945 and 1946, or for more than a year, Baker worked closely with Anquetil, Ramnarain and their lieutenants in order to create trade unions in Mauritius. They were largely responsible for the setting up of well-organised trade unions. In November 1946, the death of Emmanuel Anquetil proved to be a major blow for the trade union movement in Mauritius which was still in its embryonic state. This was coupled with the departure of Ken Baker for London a few months earlier.

In December 1947, K.C. Wilkinson, the Labour Commissioner, while paying tribute to Anquetil’s efforts on behalf of Mauritian workers, explained that:

“The death of Mr Anquetil at the end of 1946 was a blow for all trade unionists who hoped for a speedy development of strong and responsible trade unions. No one with his personality and experience has arisen to take his place, but on the other hand his disappearance has not led to the disintegration of the union for which he was responsible.”

During the mid-1940s, the Creole artisans and workers belonged to the trade unions which were led by Emmanuel Anquetil and those to which the Indian agricultural labourers were members were led by Ramnarain and his faithful lieutenants Jugdambee and Baboolall. They struggled for better working and living conditions for the island’s working class.

During this period, the Labour Party and the Jan Andolan or People’s Movement of the Bissoondoyal brothers were the allies and actively supported the Mauritian workers. Definitely, the 1940s marked an important period in the history of the Mauritian working class as the trade union movement gradually began to emerge as an important social force in Mauritian colonial society.


* Published in print edition on 1 May 2014

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