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“50 Years’ Independence for Working Women” by Lindsey Collen

29.03.2018

On International Women’s Day, 8 March, Lindsey Collen was invited to speak, in the name of LALIT, by the Federation of Civil Service and Other unions at their centre in Coromandel to about a hundred of their members.


This article is written up from the notes to which she spoke.


She began by saying that before Independence, there were already big movements for women to get the right to vote, to get access to education, and to get safe contraception, and that gains had already been made before 1968. “All the gains we have made, before 1968 and since then, have come through mobilization, mobilization on the basis of a common programme, or at least a coherent common demand,” she said.  


 Against sexual harassment and assault


In 1970, for example, Lindsey said, just two years after Independence, there was the massive rolling strike at Medine sugar estate. This was when a boss, who was a sexual predator, used to rely on a sirdar to send a woman labourer of his choice to an isolated field so that he could later rape her. If you protested, you could be without a job. When a child worker of 12 years old was put through this, however, workers risked their jobs and organized a well-planned strike. On the first day, one Annex, Palmir went on strike, 100% out. The next day the Tamarin Annex went on strike, just did not turn up at work. Palmir and all the others went to work, as if everything was normal. The third day, the Yemen Annex workers all stayed away, while all the others went to work. By the end of a week, the bosses had found out what the reason for the strike was, and the perpetrator was sacked. So, 50 years before the American #metoo movement, Mauritian working women were already organizing against sexual predators at work, and winning victories. But only through mobilization. Only through self-organization.


 Against piece-rates


In 1971, women and men labourers at the Estate called Anna (now a Restaurant called Domaine Anna), there was another sophisticated movement. The totality of workers, opposing the unfairness of the piece rates – when young men with bicycles could come very early, choose the easiest rows of cane to weed, for example, while older people, women, or someone with asthma, would earn less as a “punishment” for “weakness” – planned a unified system. They called it sistem nuvo. And then, they put their program into action. Whoever finished their row first, turned around and starting from the far end, worked the row of the worker who was the slowest. This way everyone obviously earned the same amount.


 This was no extra cost to the bosses. But they couldn’t stand it.


 But they cannot stand anything that shows that workers can organize work. They called them to the office, and made them sit and wait, and did this three days in a row, then sacked them for absence for work for three days. The police were in place for the firing. But the workers, including many women workers, had challenged piece rates. [This event has been immortalized in the play Tras by Henri Favory.]


 For free education and de-colonization of schooling


The movement called “Me 75” in fact started in January, and built up to 20 May, when thousands of students, more than half girls, went on strike, and confronted the Riot Police in a stand-off at the Grand River North West bridge. There was a platform for free secondary education, which was won, and Kreol in schools, which has only recently started to be won. But the point is, it was mobilization that brought and drove change.


 Free Zone Workers


There was a special Free Zone law that prohibited unions and any form of organization in the Export Processing Zone, where nearly all workers were women and girls. But soon there was a movement of strikes and demonstrations known as the “Amazon” movement, for obvious reasons. Soon the laws were amended, and conditions much improved. As a result of mobilization, again women.


 union Recognition


In August 1979, this time the biggest mobilization in the history of Mauritius happened. It began for union recognition – to the unions of the labourers and sugar mill worker artisans. One third of women labourers were women. And they organized the strike, alongside the men. This stopped two mill closures and brought union recognition. More than anything, it was this movement that gave the working class its confidence.


 Diego Garcia issue


The experience gained in the fight for union recognition that spilled over from August 1979 to September, 1980, gave the women from Diego Garcia and other Chagos Islands the experience to mount, together with LALIT women, a massive challenge to the Government, the British and USA, over the question of the base, the need to reunify Mauritius and the right to return. This led to the first major payment of reparations. This was an almost all-women movement. And this year, it is important note, we are still seeing effects of that big mobilization, when finally the Government has taken the UK to the International Court of Justice at the Hague. All the progress that has been made on this issue has been through mass mobilization.


 All Workers’ Conference


similarly, and many of the older members will remember this, the All Workers Conference, designed to be one Conference in 1996 to oppose privatization and neo-liberalism, ended up being some 17 Conferences, uniting delegates from all unions in huge Conferences and demonstrations, over the course of the next three or four years. And the fact that we have completely free education up to the end of high school and free health care of a fairly high standard is a homage to this movement, again to the mobilization of the people.


 Two Currents in the Women’s Movement


From the year 2000 of so, the working class, including women workers, has been reeling form the neo-liberal onslaught. And it is in this downturn that both unions have weakened and the women’s movement has been weakened by one current within the movement submitting to patriarchy, and instead of seeking emancipation, instead of struggling for liberation, they turned to seeking for women to be named in positions of power. They went on a strategy of gender equity, instead of anti-patriarchy.


 The #metoo movement


And to come back to where we started from, even in the USA, where the “naming of women to positions of power” has been strongest, the #metoo movement has exposed the incredible degree to which we, women, are still dominated and exploited at work – by predatory males in positions of power. So mobilization is beginning again.


 She concluded by saying that mobilization was cause of any gains made for working women, as for the working class as a whole. So, we must continue to mobilize.


 About the event at FCSOU


Before Lindsey Collen took the floor, Naraindranath Gopee the FCSOU President, gave an excellent speech on the role of Anjalay Coopen in the workers’ movement of 1943, in which she was killed in the Belle Vue Massacre. But, after Lindsey’s Speech, Lindsey reports that M. Gopee gave a confused speech, saying that the Gender Ministry had done a lot of damage (“fer dega”), and that the Family Court exposes problems that should be resolved in private.