Workers Have Not Shared

Mauritius Times – 60 Years

By Peter Ibbotson

The Commission which investigated the purchasing power of the rupee considered especially the fall or rise in the purchasing power in the years 1952-1957. They came to the conclusion, as demonstrated in a chart in their report (where it appears as Figure III), that the purchasing power of the rupee inside Mauritius had hardly altered during the years in question. It had, in fact, gone up very slightly; so slightly as to be almost imperceptible.

That means, then, that overall prices had not risen during the years in question; that you could still buy for 100 rupees in 1957 the same goods as you had bought for 100 rupees in 1952. We learn from the figure referred to that the purchasing power of the rupee remained steady all throughout 1955 and 1956 and rose by the almost imperceptible amount (4 per cent) in 1957. However, we find that the cost of living, as revealed in official documents, went up during the period in question; and went up very perceptibly. If the purchasing power of the rupee remained static in 1955 and 1956, how was it that the cost of living went up? Or, if the cost of living went up, how did the purchasing power of the rupee remain static? Can the Commission explain this?

And, if the purchasing power of the rupee went up by 4 per cent in 1957, how was it that the cost-of-living index for that year showed an increase over the index for 1957? If the rupee would buy a little bit more in 1957 than in 1956, as the Commission would have us believe, then surely the cost-of-living index should have showed a fall in 1957 compared with 1956? But, from the mass of detailed figures given in the Yearbook of Statistics, it is clear that the cost-of-living index for 1957 shows no fall compared with 1956. But, in the hindsight of the Commission’s chart, one would have expected such a fall.

Another remark of the Commission’s is most exceptionable. On page 7 of their report, they say “the last 10 years have in fact been a continuous period of moderate boom condition”. There has been a boom — but its effect has been confined almost exclusively to what the Commission calls “the upper and middle classes”, to whose “increased prosperity” particular attention is drawn. As regards the working classes, the Commission merely notes that there has been “a substantial degree of redistribution of income affecting the poorer classes” leading to greater demand for various consumer goods — food, clothes, cigarettes, drink, etc.

Let us examine, however, working-class wages and see if, during the years 1952-1957, which the Commission had under particular review, the workers benefitted from the “moderate boom conditions.” As everyone knows, the labourers in the sugar industry are the backbone of the economy of Mauritius. Until recently they produced a ton of sugar for every inhabitant of the island; the population started leaping up, production per person has slightly decreased, but still five sixths of a ton of sugar for every person in Mauritius. And, of course, the level of wages paid in the sugar industry determines the level of wages paid in other branches of productive and distributive industry.

So let us look at wages in the sugar industry during this “moderate boom” in which the proceeds of the sugar crop have gone up from 238 million rupees (1952) to 300 million rupees (1957). The most highly paid field labourers are the handful of class 1 men labourers whose wages in the years 1952 to 1957 are tabulated below.

Year               Monthly Workers    Daily Workers

1952               Rs 69.50                    Rs 3.60

1953               Rs 70.50                    Rs 3.67

1954               Rs 70.50                    Rs 3.67

1955               Rs 79.38                    Rs 3.66

1956               Rs 81.19                    Rs 3.61

1957               Rs 87.57                    Rs 3.90

The apparent jump in the wages of the monthly employed workers between 1954 and 1955 is due to the fact that the figures for 1955 and after include the end-of-crop bonus payable to monthly workers. I have not, however, the figures of the end-of-crop bonus for the earlier years. If we exclude this bonus from the years 1955-1956 and 1957, we find wages of Rs 68.51, Rs 67.60 and Rs 73.30 respectively. What therefore is the percentage increase in the wages (basic plus cost-of-living allowance) of the Class 1 men field labourers in the years under review? For the monthly employed man, an increase of Rs 3.80 on a wage of Rs 69.50, an increase of no more than 5½ per cent. The daily-paid Class 1 man has seen his wages rise by 30 cents on a wage of, originally, Rs 3.60 — that is, by a little less than 8½ per cent. But the total proceeds of the sugar crop rose by 62 million rupees, from 238 million to 300 million — that is, by as much as 26 per cent! (If we compared the rise in wages against the rise in crop proceeds between the years 1952 and 1956, the comparison would be even more loaded in favour of the employers and against the workers; not only were wages considerably lower in 1956 than in 1957, but crop proceeds were quite considerably higher).

It is possible, of course, that the meagre increases in wages grudgingly granted since 1957 and squeezed out of miserly employers by the Kirkaldy Tribunal have slightly redressed the invidious comparison of the rise accruing to the workers and the rise accruing to the employers as a result of the prosperity of the sugar crop — but the basis of the argument remains unaltered. And that is, that while there may have been a “moderate boom” in Mauritius over the years 1952 and 1957, this boom profited the employing classes to a great and perceptible extent, but barely made one iota of difference to the workers. The base of the island’s prosperity in general goes up in value by 26 percent — the workers’ share of that increased prosperity goes up by 5.5 or 8.5 per cent! Is this fair? Is this just? To both questions (they are not mere rhetorical questions) the answer is “No, it is neither fair nor just — but it is capitalism.”

*  *  *

Capitalism has failed in Mauritius

I said last week that capitalism had failed in Mauritius. What I have just written amply demonstrates its failure. We are constantly assured by the apologists of capitalism and private enterprise that increased productivity means increased prosperity for all — but does the record of the wages paid in the sugar industry, wages paid out of the total crop proceeds which have gone up only because total production has also gone up, bear out this claim?

If it were true that increased productivity, reflected as it would be in the case of the Mauritius sugar industry by increased crop proceeds, meant increased prosperity for all, then we would expect the wages paid to go up commensurately with the increase in crop proceeds, i.e. with the results of increased production. But in fact, this has just not happened. Wages have gone up slightly, we find; but the dividends paid to shareholders have gone up far more (I refer, of course, to percentage increases); but if everyone had fair shares, wages and dividends would increase, percentage-wise, the same.

The Commission finds it a matter of congratulation that during the years 1952 to 1957 the purchasing power of the rupee should have remained steady. Inflation has, it appears, not reached Mauritius. The danger is that this so-called steadiness in value of the purchasing power of money may be used by the employers as an excuse (but they will call it a reason) for not raising wages. They will say: “But there’s no need to raise your wages. There has been no rise in costs — your money will buy the same this year as it would buy last year, and the year before, and the year before that. There just aren’t any grounds for putting up your wages.” But, of course, this would be a valid line of argument only if (and it’s a big IF) the level of wages in the first place had been a decent level.

In the sugar industry, of course, it wasn’t a fair wage in 1938 or in 1948, or in 1958; and since the level of wages in general depends on the level of wages in the sugar industry, that means that wages in Mauritius have never been related to any fair and just standard. The 1938 wage was fixed on the assumption that the wife would work part-time and so eke out the man’s wage which was fixed at a figure lower than the sum needed to buy the minimum quantity of food, etc., which the Labour Department thought a labourer’s family ought to buy; and in addition, the labourer was expected to supplement his below subsistence wages by work on his allotment or garden. In other words, the pre-war basis of wage determination was three quarters of your minimum subsistence requirements paid by your employer, three-sixteenths earned by your wife, and one-sixteenths met out of keeping a few chickens or a cow. And that 1938 mentality still prevails; wages are still related to this long out-of-date heartless system.

There are no grounds for complacency that the rupee has maintained its purchasing power over the period studied by the Commission. Nor, in view of the record of wages paid in the sugar industry as against the record of crop proceeds, can it be said that the “moderate boom conditions” have helped the working class. If the workers had been getting adequate wages in 1952, no-one would have grumbled at the smallness (5½ percent or 8½ percent) of the increases in wages up to 1957. If the workers had been getting fair and decent wages in 1952, it would have been a matter for congratulation that the rupee had its purchasing power during 1952-1957. But they weren’t getting decent wages in 1952; the wage increases up to 1957 were pitiably inadequate, and these pitiable increases could have been acceptable only if the purchasing power of the rupee had gone up tremendously.

In view of the striking falls in the cost of imported goods, it should have been expected that prices in Mauritius would have down, so that everyone would have been able to buy more for his rupee. But prices in Mauritius didn’t go down despite the fall in import prices, and no-one was, overall, able to buy more for his 1957 rupee than he could buy for his 1952 rupee. So, I repeat (and I will examine this problem of falling import prices unaccompanied by equivalently falling internal prices next week) that in view of all the Commission’s findings considered together, private enterprise and capitalism have failed Mauritius, and ought to be replaced by their antithesis — public enterprise and Socialism.

6th Year – No 274
Friday 13th November, 1959

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 7 June 2024

An Appeal

Dear Reader

65 years ago Mauritius Times was founded with a resolve to fight for justice and fairness and the advancement of the public good. It has never deviated from this principle no matter how daunting the challenges and how costly the price it has had to pay at different times of our history.

With print journalism struggling to keep afloat due to falling advertising revenues and the wide availability of free sources of information, it is crucially important for the Mauritius Times to survive and prosper. We can only continue doing it with the support of our readers.

The best way you can support our efforts is to take a subscription or by making a recurring donation through a Standing Order to our non-profit Foundation.
Thank you.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *