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Talk by Lindsey Collen to University Students on Workers' Freedom


Invited by the Students' Union of a Mauritian University, Lalit member, Lindsey Collen gave a speech to 75 students and 4 or 5 lecturers on the subject they chose “Workplace Democracy and Workers' Freedom”. On a request from students, she has written her speech up for the web. The speech was due to take 45 minutes but questions and comments were to go on without a fixed end-time. Instead of finishing in some 15 minutes as expected, questions and answers went on another 45 minutes. Here is a summary of her speech.

The question that you as the Students' Union have chosen is an interesting one, and certainly one that gives hope in these not-so-easy times. I must congratulate you on it.

You can follow the structure of my speech because it is in 7 parts, of different lengths, as follows:

1 I will look at the topic, firstly over time, in Mauritius. It is important to get a historical perspective, so important that without it we will quite literally understand nothing.
2 Then we will look at the situation in Mauritius today, across space. That is to say we will look at the reality, with regard to freedom and democracy, in different types of work sites, for different kinds of workers.
3 I'll list some of the factors that affect workplace democracy and worker freedom, in an abstract way, but in a way that can be of practical use.
4 I'll outline one or two of the “rifts” that the present capitalist system has created, and which block both democracy and freedom, and will until they are healed.
5 I'll outline the importance of both informal democracy and freedom, as well as more formal, on the work site.
6 I'll give two examples, one in Britain and one in Mauritius, of the highest level of worker democracy and of the taking of freedom. And how it has been dealt with by the status quo.
7 There'll be a brief conclusion. Then of course discussion.

Over time in Mauritian history
The first 100 years of workplace democracy and workers freedom must be seen in the legal framework, under the labour laws, which were the legal framework of slavery. The Code Noir of 1723 governed the conditions under which most work was done in Mauritius under French Colonial rule, once the infrastructure had been put in place by a relatively small number of skilled workers. The vast majority of workers from then onwards laboured under slavery. This was draconian. Unimaginably hard. You did not even have the right to your own name. Your whole self was bought by the boss. You got killed for holding a meeting. How's that for workplace democracy? And you got whipped for any number of so-called “offenses”. So, workers had to exist, and attempt to navigate within the harshest of conditions. And these conditions, of the gang in the sugar cane fields, became the pattern that would later be applied to capitalist industrialization, starting in all those northern English towns, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle – all the names of the football teams in the English league. But, over time, the system of slavery became unstable, its internal contradictions exploded, and it was declared illegal in Mauritius, and elsewhere.

Then there was a 100 years under indenture, from a few years before the end of slavery in 1835. This new system of labour was regulated by the Labour Laws codified 30 years later, in 1867, based on 5 year contracts. It was a system of foreign workers, who could either renew their contracts or return to their respective countries. Those workers under this new slavery who came from Bihar in India often stayed because the situation, with the end of opium production in Bihar, made life impossible for peasants who had been prevented from growing anything but opium poppies, for sale by the British to China. Workplace freedom was limited. Firstly, you had to stay on the sugar estate or other enterprise to which you were allocated by your contract. Till today, when someone looks a bit pre-occupied, we ask him or her, “Ki'nn arive? To'nn perdi tablisman?” Because if you strayed off your allocated sugar estate, you were picked up either by the police or by any free men (who would hunt vagrants down as a kind of sport) and locked up in the Vagrants Depot, which you can still see near the GRNW bridge, on the road to Pte aux Sables. If you were absent one day, two days were docked from your pay. Note that this is still like that today, disguised as losing your bonus. But now you know where this part of your work conditions actually comes from.

And now for 100 years, we have been under the legal framework of wage labour. We sell our labour power. We have part of our selves, our time, our creativity, which has been reduced to being a mere commodity. In the beginning of this new system, there were the anti-coalition laws, which prevented any form of unions, and later we had the Industrial Relations Act, which bureaucratized all unions terribly, and continued to outlaw all strikes, and today we have the Employment Relations Act, which, taken together with the Employment Rights (sic) Act, once again heavily reduces the right to unionize, in practice, and the right to strike, in practice, with all sorts of restrictions imposed by the State in the interests of the employers.

So, our three major time-periods have seen increasing democracy, and increasing freedom, but both still heavily shackled by the past history. We need further struggles in order to question the wage slavery that we tolerate. It is worth mentioning that as we speak, we are in times when there is a generalized uprising against the present system. The capitalist system is in crisis. Its financial institutions, banks, insurance, stock exchanges, have gone out of control, and people are no longer satisfied with the life offered to them under capitalism. Thus, there are rebellions world-wide. We live in interesting times.

Across space within Mauritius
The present state of workplace democracy and workers' freedom differs as we move across a spectrum within Mauritian enterprises. We will start with those kinds of workers who have the least democracy and worker freedom and move across the spectrum towards those who have more.

The worst conditions, recently exposed, are those of foreign workers here on contract. They have left their home and culture (“culture” in the broad sense of agreed behavior), and here they suffer forced overtime, they do not need to be paid for days when they take a child to hospital, days when they go to a funeral, or a close relative's chowtari, they live in appalling “hostel” conditions, and if they fall ill, get drunk, fall pregnant, they get repatriated on the spot. Their democracy and freedom are severely controlled in practice, for the simple reason that they are out of their own society, and they do not have political rights here (not even the right to vote while they are here).

Moving along the spectrum, we find domestic workers. Because they work for many bosses, splintered all over the place, on their own or with one or two others, they are bound to suffer in terms of democracy and freedom. And often one worker works for different employers on each day of the week. So, if you don't bow down, you are out.

Similarly, there are employees within the family. This may seem to be more flexible, and not to really be work, but in fact there are some wives and children who are reduced to near slavery, within family businesses. They have no democracy or freedom. They would not even think of going to the Labour Inspectorate. Maybe they do not even consider themselves workers.

Employees of small enterprises, now nearly half of all workers in Mauritius with the drastic reduction in proper employment in the country, are also very weak. In little factories and work sites that make chutney or model boats, smart clothes by hand, or little restaurants, workers are extremely weak, only slightly stronger than domestic of family workers. And those working from home are also very weak indeed, even if their work – say electronic stuff – is of high status. Often one is reduced to slavery. What they pay is what they pay. You have no sick leave, local leave or even public holidays. Rights are almost totally unenforcible. And you pay the rent and the bill for electricity and telecom!

Slightly stronger, but still very weak are free zone and call centre workers. They have the advantage of sometimes working in large enterprises, with many colleagues, but their degree of freedom is very low, and the bosses tolerate very little democracy of any kind. Textile workers are tied into the absurd logic of both having forced overtime, and begging for this same overtime, because wages are so low. In the ICT sector, at call centres, there are added constraints. Once again, your very name is taken away from you. You have to sit there telling lies about everything from your name, to where you are, to the weather.

Big old sectors like construction were well organized, but have suffered from the coming into force of temporary, contract labour. This has reduced construction workers' rights to something like that of supermarket and shop workers. Very few.

The big old sectors still have some of the freedoms and democracy fought for for hundreds of years. I'm referring to workers in cane and sugar, in docks and transport. The right and freedoms have been eroded over the past 30 years, but are still there to some extent.

Workers in the parastatal sector are more protected, and have somewhat more democracy.

And finally, it is workers in the government sector whose jobs are most protected, thus giving them a certain amount of voice and of freedom. However, they pay strongly, in that they are not allowed to be active in political party leaderships.

So, in all it is not a happy situation for workers. The past weighs heavily upon us. We are still more-or-less in slavery/indenture. We need to work hard to get out of it.

Factors that affect workplace democracy and worker freedom
Let us just look at three other factors that affect the degree of democracy and freedom at work.

First there is the degree of hierarchy in the sector. In general, the more hierarchical the sector, the less freedom, all other things being equal. For example, in the police force, a cruelly hierarchical, militaristic structure, as workers police men and women are extremely oppressed, compared with other work sectors. They are not allowed even to unionize. We could also say that in the cane fields, where all labourers are equal relative to the bosses, the labourers benefit curiously from a relatively high degree of freedom. This may explain why people like cane labourers, government labourers, lorry helpers, dockers are often very lively people, with humour and gaiety, even though their work is terrible. They do not have the depressing humiliation of constant hierarchical harassment.

Secondly, the legal framework affects both democracy and freedom at work. Labour Laws, including work hours, the Constitution, and the degree, in theory and in practice, of the right to strike, to associate, to meet at work, to be active in politics. Because these are clear infringements on democracy and freedom, they are often what is aimed at in struggles.

Thirdly, the closeness of the alliance between owners and top management also affects the degree of democracy and freedom of workers. And it is a dialectical relationship. As workers get more power, layer upon layer of lower management ally with them, and help gain more democratic rights and freedoms at work.

For the past 250 years, over which time, as we have seen, the capitalist system has come to power in the whole world, this same system has created three levels of “rifts” that deny us democracy and freedom, the very powers that we need in order to protect not only humanity, but the whole of the planet. Let me explain this one:

Firstly, capitalism has separated “labour power” (in Kreol we call it “kuraz”) from human beings, and put it up for sale in the market as a commodity. This rift within working people, makes us unable to take decisions about the things our minds and hands are “paid” to do. We are thus often given orders to make things we do not even understand, to do things we may not agree with, and are certainly not “responsible” for. This is where the lack of democracy, at its deepest level, is also at its most dangerous level. 90% of people may be working with our own minds and hands, producing in ways that are destroying the planet. The 1% (to 10%, say) that give the orders are not “responsible” either, because the system they control has only one aim: increase profits.

The second rift that capitalism creates is between humans (biological creatures like any other, which rely on mother earth for sustenance) from the land that feeds us. Land, too, just like “labour power” has become a form capital, a commodity, too. This means that humans no longer have democratic control over mother earth, nor the freedom to live off her collectively, as all other creatures do.

The third rift is actually a series of rifts. Industrial capitalism, including industrial agriculture, have caused a series of rifts in the balance of nature, threatening the very stability of the planet's ecosystem. Scientists have identified 9 different critical levels, which threaten to create rifts in nature itself. All are at dangerous levels, three already beyond the point of no return. And yet our ways of making decisions so undemocratically under capitalism mean it is not easy to correct for these new rifts. Those in power not only have no interest, but their only aim in life is to make profit. And this, by definition. Not particularly because they are in some way bad people.

So, we have very serious challenges that we need to bring against the capitalist system, and we need to do this fast, and through taking up struggles. Some of these struggles must be on the work-place shop floor.

Informal and formal democracy and freedom at work
We need to evaluate levels of informal and formal democracy at the shop-floor level. Informal democracy and freedom depends also on ourselves. Group discussions, at tea time, in transport, at lunch, after work. Any type of organization independent of management, is important: in terms of taking turns to take leave, not using religious pretexts for time off because it can be used to divide you later, organizing your own rules and ethics at work, organizing your own self-financed end-of-the-year party. All this counts.

But the formal level is also important for measuring the degree of democracy and freedom at work. Are there unions? Are the unions lively? Are they independent of the management/bosses? Are they independent of the State? Do you have the right to unionize in your enterprise? The Employment Rights and Relations Acts when taken together in fact make unionization quite difficult, because bosses can easily fire organizers. Laws on employment security affect democracy and freedom. The ERA laws, for example, by making sackings easy, tend to create an atmosphere that decreases democracy and freedom. If there is full employment in a country, this means more freedom and democracy at work; unemployment means fear of sacking. If there is a good social security network, so that when you lose your job, you can still live fairly well, this makes for more democracy for those in work. And then, there are the “participation” schemes, that are perhaps more of a facade of democracy, that is to say, representatives of workers on the board, or participation in shares, or participation in management. These are ways of participating, frankly, in your own exploitation as a class. However, if you can set up elected works councils, this can move towards “double power” or “dual power”, which is on the way to workers' control, the ultimate in worker democracy.

High levels of worker freedom and democracy
In Britain there was very high class consciousness before the Thatcher time. For example, print workers. They did not agree to work piece rates, because it enslaved them. They all took home the same weekly pay. When an American firm took over, the bosses insisted on setting up bonus schemes for productivity, for presence, etc. The workers refused, the shop stewards and unions refused. But the bosses went on and on so much about these schemes, that the unions eventually pretended to agree, and the bosses instituted the schemes so dear to their hearts. In practice what the workers did was to pool all their weekly incomes and share them out equally. But they did this behind the bosses back.

And there is the famous example in Mauritius at the sugar estate called Anna. Now a “domaine” of restaurants. The workers there in 1971 invented a new system of shared work, not piece rates, for the inter-crop season. They were all sacked. You can read this story in a brief form in The Malaria Man & Her Neighbours, my last year's novel. (She read it out in English).

Just as when slavery could not continue, when it was rent apart by social contradictions, and just as indenture could no longer continue when it was torn apart by social strife, so wage slavery is right now, as you are at university, finding itself in a position where its internal contradictions are beginning to kill it. The production/distribution/finance machinery of capitalism in 2011 is out of control. It has become a threat to human civilization and even to the planet as a whole. So, we need a new economic system. And to get this we need a political struggle, which is conscious and around a clear program. So, the topic you chose for this talk was really the best topic. Because what we are not getting under the present system, as we have seen, is enough democracy and freedom in order to be able to control the productive/distribution/finance machinery of capitalism.