The Sugar Industry and the Labour Unrest of 1937

The Hooper Report which investigated the unrest was a turning point in the history of Mauritius for it provided a blueprint for the future of workers

As the few elements of history that our students learn at school are being weaned away from the secondary school curriculum to be replaced by hagiography, let us as citizens of the country take the responsibility of teaching our children and grandchildren the history of our country. We have been commemorating, this month, two major events in Mauritian and world history: the general elections that made Mauritius an independent country, and the abolition of Indian indentured labour. To complete the trilogy, let us remember August 1937, the year when the workers of this country said: ‘Enough is enough’, an event which marked a turning point in the history of Mauritius and which signalled the awakening of workers’ consciousness by the memorable protest song of Siven Chinien’s ‘soldat militant’.

In August 1937, after some sporadic strikes and protests by small planters and workers, labourers in the district of Flacq organized a protest march on Union Flacq to seek explanations from the proprietor who had refused to increase their wages. According to an artisan, who was working at that time in the factory at Union, the said proprietor had refused an increase in wages and hurled at workers that if they needed food, they could have ‘brèdes songes’ from the his estate. When the crowd — described as ‘threatening’ in the Inquiry report of District Magistrate Osman –, marched on Union estate, to the cry of ‘Jai Hind’, borrowed from Gandhi’s mass mobilization campaign, the proprietors panicked, fired and killed three labourers.

On the eve of that march, the police who had prior knowledge of the protest march informed the factory owners and asked them to take measures for their own protection; the proprietor decided to arm some of his men in the office with guns. It was the same proprietor, who a few years earlier, had assembled about 7000 labourers and small planters at the Champ de Mars to exert pressure on the colonial government to come to the help of the sugar industry, a model of mobilization later to be emulated by Dr Maurice Curé.

It is not difficult to imagine the disappointment of small planters and workers at the violation of what E.P. Thomson would have described as “the moral economy of the plantation world”. Whenever there was a decline in the price of sugar or a major catastrophe such as cyclone, drought or the Surra disease of 1901 which killed all animals on the sugar estates, the workers and small planters not only bore the brunt of cost-cutting operations but remained cooperative. When prices began to improve, as they did in 1937, they expected in a spirit of fairness and justice to be given their just share; when the proprietors reneged on this moral principle, the workers had no alternative than to take action for the bargain to be respected.

Disequilibrium between capital and labour

Unfortunately the colonial state and the post-colonial state that were expected to arbitrate with a view to maintaining an equilibrium between capital and labour preferred to side with the plantocracy. When prices of sugar fell on the sugar market in the 1930s, the colonial state’s response was to bolster the level of profits for the industry and sustain the offensive against small planters and workers. Falling sugar prices do not always necessarily result into a crisis. However, the classical response of the industry was always to present it as a crisis whether the decline in profitability was small or big.

In 1929 the price dropped to Rs12.00 per 100 kgs of sugar compared to Rs18.68 in 1925. In the same year, the report of the Chamber of Agriculture indicated that the industry was making a profit of two million rupees. Even in the worse situation after the labour unrest of the 1930s, the Hooper Commission recommended after surveying the profitability of the industry an increase in wages for workers.

In 1931, when the price of sugar was at its lowest, the Financial Commission headed by Sir Francis Watts reached the conclusion that the price of sugar in Mauritius was below the cost of production and recommended a grant to the industry. However Malcolm de Chazal denounced the Watt’s conclusions in his anonymous pamphlet on several grounds. He argued that Watt’s conclusions were flawed because his survey was based on a number of small factories in one district, that he did not take into account the fact that the big factories were more economical and efficient and that 30% of the sugar was produced by small planters at very low cost. He also added that the charges paid by industry for marketing, shipping and insurance were inflated because the proprietors, directors and shareholders of those companies were the very owners of the sugar factories.

In their attempt to secure funds from the Imperial government, planters also complained about indebtedness of the industry yet refrained from revealing figures about the real cost of production. These figures remained a secret and they resisted any inquiry or measures which could lead to disclosure of the real cost of production. When the governor mentioned the creation of a Mortgage Bank, he reported that Leclezio, the President of the Chamber of Agriculture ‘almost collapsed in horror’. As for the commercial bank which financed the industry, the governor reported to the Colonial Office that its finances too remained secretive ‘because the planters were the main shareholders of the bank and were linked to the bank – not only by financial but close family ties’.

An additional difficulty which the governor faced in his attempts to get to the real figures was that the bank was not registered according ‘to the company law but by a charter, which it had obtained from the Crown in the nineteenth century’. In fact the local and the imperial government had other reasons to be on the side of the planters. They wanted a problem-free administration and even when they could have access to the figures of the bank through Lloyds Bank, they resorted to that measure only on very rare occasions.

Strategy and dividends

It must be conceded that the standard strategy of the planters to exaggerate the problems of the industry in order to obtain financial concessions from the government whilst at the same time maintaining their level of profits was very successful. They would argue that the industry was on the verge of collapse if financial assistance was not forthcoming. Those who would suffer most would be the small planters and the workers and this could result in a major upheaval in the colony. They would even mobilize workers and planters against the government. What they did not say was that the strategy brought dividends to themselves.

In 1926, 1927 and 1928, loans were obtained from colonial governments. In 1930, a grant of Rs6 million was made to planters to be repaid over 30 years. In 1931 another loan of 500,000 pounds was granted and further financial assistance was given in 1934.

Besides loans, additional measures were taken. The sugar industry was exempted from repayments of loans on several occasions. In 1925, there was a reduction of sugar export duty from Rs10 to Rs5. In 1928 the special export duty was abolished. The export duty to be levied for the loan of 1930 was not re-imposed and the custom duty of 32 cents was reduced to 2 cents per kilo. In 1935, the Secretary of State agreed to a partial remission of loan payments as long as the London price did not reach 10shs 6 pence. In the 1930s, financial assistance to the industry amounted Rs 50 million rupees.

Meanwhile it was the small planters and workers who bore the brunt of the economic depression. Retrenchment, unemployment, declining standard of living, increase of casual labour, low wages, intensification of labour, increasing employment of women and child labour were the lot of the workers and their families. In 1929, the daily wage of Rs1.00 was reduced to 45 cents, for women to 30-45 cents and children 25-30 cents and later men’s wages fluctuated between 60 and 70 cents. Rice consumption per capita fell from 158 kgs in 1928 to 128 kgs in 1930, resulting in a rise of malnutrition and mortality.

As a result of the increasing distress and exploitation, the rising anger which had been smouldering for some time reached flashpoint in August 1937 and the workers seemed to be saying: ‘Enough is enough’. At L’Unite, telephone wires were cut, trucks overturned and fire set to the canefields. At Bel Etang tramways were overturned. These strikes and incidents morphed into an organized protest march that took a dramatic turn when the factory owners fired on workers.

The news of the firing spread like wild fire across the island and labourers came out in force, and sympathy strikes engulfed the island. That was the first effective workers demonstration in the history of Mauritius. The Hooper Report which investigated the unrest was a turning point in the history of the island for it provided a blueprint for the future of workers and the development of the island.

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