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The Trade union Movement Facing Economic Mutations


Before looking at the trade union movement and how LALIT works, and can work in future, with the existing unions, it is worth taking stock of the new economic and social environment that they are today operating in.

 A New Economic and Social Context

Looking at the situation at a nation-wide level, we see that other than a few sparks here and there in two or three sectors, there is a generalized demobilization of the working class. At the same time we live in times when there are very serious threats to the livelihoods of working people. The old ways that capitalism was organized have changed and are going on changing, causing both job destruction and also any number of different attacks on workers’ rights, rights won over generations of struggle. There are changes in the very nature of work itself. We see a huge proportion of the working class now working in sectors where there is no job security at all. In particular the proliferation of Small and Medium Enterprises and other informal sectors, work has become precarious, seasonal, the kind of journeyman work that had more-or-less disappeared 30-40 years ago. Some workers in the computer and other ICT  sectors often do not even know who there boss is. This electronic sector of the economy has also brought a new divide – between those living in a digital world and the broad masses who have no more than a cell phone (and sometimes an out-of-service computer) linking them to cyberspace.

 At the same time, the Government is measuring “development” by figures that show how FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) is increasing. This is absurd because a huge proportion of the FDI is actually provoking a situation where there will be no future hope of development, without itself involving any production at all; it is pure real estate speculation, involving no proper work and, worse still, actually selling to rich millionaires and billionaires from abroad the only resource for future development: the arable land. Even bourgeois ideologues like Lindsay Riviere and Pierre Dinan now recognise and denounce this. This type of non-development around the Intergrated Resort Schemes and so-called Smart Cities is the bourgoisie and the Government getting together in order to enter a new era of colonization; this involves setting up gated communities a-la-Israel in Palestine, and offering all manner of permits and tax cuts, and even permanent residence and citizenship, to billionaires from abroad who buy villas around either gold-courses, hunting lodges or marinas by the sea.

 When we look at the sugar and cane sector, it has gone from employing 50,000 workers in permanent jobs in the 1970s now reduced to, at most, 5,000 jobs. With the fall in the price of sugar and the coming end of the quota for European producers as from 1 October, 2017, the sugar sector will plunge further into crisis. With the end of the European quota, there will be surplus sugar production on the market, and this will further lower prices, which are are ready down by 36% with the end of guaranteed prices. With this disastrous outlook, the question is what further incentives and tax deals can the Government now offer the cane sector after all the so-called “reforms” that transformed the sector from being the “sugar sector” to being the “cane sector”. Cane is now being planted not just for sugar, but for its straw to be burnt in making electricity, for its molasses to be made into ethanol, and for special refined sugar – all this so prolong the profitability of the sugar industry. This was followed by a series of waves of concessions the Government gave for the selling off of agricultural land for Property Development Schemes and other real estate scams being marketed under the euphemism of “smart cities”.

 International Context

Uncertainty for the economy has been aggravated by Brexit and its effects and by the election of a protectionist wild-card as new US President, Donald Trump. Trump’s campaign was based on his promise to force American businessmen to disinvest abroad and go home to the USA, and for Americans to buy American products. So, the Mauritian textile sector, which used to employ some 90,000 workers in its 1990 hey-day and which now only employs some 50,000, now risks further sackings as an era of protectionism begins.

 Attacks and threats against the working class

The massive destruction of jobs in the sugar industry via the Blueprint for mill workers and via Voluntary Retirement Schemes for labourers has led to both less jobs and labourers being taken on again but as seasonal workers with no proper rights. This represents a return to the chaotic conditions under job-contractors and seasonal work that held sway until the great victory in 1964 whereby the sugar estates were forced, by law, to employ a certain percentage of workers in the inter-crop season as well as in the cane harvest season.

 Threats of privatization of sectors like water (Central Water Authority) and the Port (Cargo Handling Corporation) under the pretext of the need for strategic partners who will inject investment, but which will just make profits for the multinational concerned. Meanwhile there have been para-statals that are amalgamating or quite simply closing down, and forcing workers to take a sum and leave.

 This happens alongside a sustained campaign by the bourgeoisie and the commercial press against universal rights to pensions, free health and free education. In turn, this happens alongside the expansion and promotion of private sector education, health and pensions and the insurance scams that supposedly allow it. All this puts ongoing pressure on the State to cut benefits, especially universal ones.

 All this – the unemployment, underemployment, and pressure to cut services – leads in turn to social crisis, violence within the family, mortal disputes between neighbours. All this tends to limit the “space” for thinking in the minds of working people and the oppressed, in general, who are thrown into both gloom and disorder.

 The union movement

It is clear that the union movement is divided, demobilized and unable to do much other than one or two symbolic actions. Only 20% of workers are unionized, of the 530,000 in the work force. This is due to both the nature of the work (in small sites, for example) or the pressure that the bosses put on union delegates. To get an idea in 2015 there were 382 trade unions registered, 19 federations and 9 confederations. All those unions for only 20% of the work force. In fact, it is not uncommon, even with 80% not unionized, for two unions to fight over one sector.

 In times like these, a trade union bureacracy that competes and squabbles on a full-time basis.

 We can perhaps identify 5 categories in the bureaucracy, though many of them overlap a bit:

1. Those that concentrate, in these times, only on their sector, and are not interested in gains for the working class as a whole. For example, the FSCC, FCSU, GSEA.

2. Manipulators and schemers, populist and in some cases anti-LALIT. Here, we can include the FSG, GWF, FPU – mainly the unions in which the negotiators are Subron or Bizlall, or that have links with CARES.

3. Concentrated on their own sector, but with a wider vision from time to time: CTSP, FTU, CITU.

4. Those that swear allegeance to the regime in power, and sing the praises in their press conferences of the Prime Minister or some other Minister. e.g PLHDWU sang praises to Pravind Jugnauth while its competitor PLMEA sang praises to Aneerood Jugnauth, or the SICOM union that sang the praises of Badhain when he was minister.

5. Those that are in the business of just negotiating between bosses and workers, as if they were a Human Resources Manager of the bosses, but with an external office. Most unions have an element of this nature, in particular because of the legal framework that ties them into a very bureaucratic vision of themselves as union leaders.

 Can the union movement, as it is now, mobilize workers on important matters?

It’s worth remembering the 3 levels of unions’ aims :

* To defend acquired rights.

* To struggle for new rights.

* To put on the agenda demands that bring the whole of capitalist exploitation into question: “class struggle” union work.

 In these times of a downturn in the working class struggle, where workers are on the defensive over the past decades, and where the union leadership has concentrated uniquely on minor demands with immediate “gains” and less on the big issues that are affecting the lives of the broad masses in the working class in the medium and long term. Often they have concentrated on defending acquired rights, and then these timid demands for new rights. But there is very little sign of proper “class struggle” unions work, or the 3rd level of union aims.

 On the land question, for example, which challenges capitalist exploitation, the trade union leadership fails even to see the dangers of the Government and the bosses clubbing together to get rid of all that arable land, selling it off for millionaires to build holiday playgrounds; they do not seem to notice what this will mean for job creation for future generations, just as much as it already means now. The aim of the bureaucracy of the trade unions is to find out how much the bosses are making (even in their exploitation abroad of more exploited workers) and then how much of this profit can be got for union members.

 On the issue of the campaign against fingerprinting for the biometric ID Cards and against fingerprinting for presence at work, or CCTV on the worksite. This campaign was led by LALIT, with the CTSP and CITU and FTU being in a common platform with us. Other unions ran campaigns at Clavis Primary School and against the Alteo sugar bosses, while bus industry workers opposed cameras on buses. These struggles led to rather spectacular victories: there is no longer a central data-base of fingerprinting for the ID cards, and there are now many worksites where fingerprinting is completely out. So, while the campaign was essentially defensive, it was nevertheless important in working people learning how the new form of repression through surveillence operates and will increasingly operate. In this sense, it is a more serious challenge.

 On the Diego Garcia struggle, which is a broad anti-imperialist struggle, important in the process of overturning capitalism, the unions in general have no real stand. Only the CTSP has taken position and come in on the ongoing LALIT campaign, but even there, not showing much interest in drawing all their members in.

 With the threat of water privatization (now on hold), there were two sets of union mobilization, if not at the grassroots level: one around the CTSP and the other around the GSEA-CARES-R&A who see themselves as a “Fron Sitwayen” – on this important but defensive struggle.

 At the Port, the threat of privatization of the CHC (by DP World), the Government has finally abandoned the project after worker mobilization and an unfavourable Report on DP World.

 The bus workers sector has three threats on jobs: the Metro Express light rail project has been announced and is going ahead. There is also the gradual introduction of the one-man bus. There is also the constant threat of illegal taxis and buses without licenses that poach passengers, as it were, and make bus workers lose some of their bargaining power. In general, there is a lack of thinking in the unions on these massive changes going on.

 TISA (the Trade in Services Agreement) – one of the arms of the WTO – is set to attempt to liberalize the services sector. At a workshop organized by the PSI on the dangers of privatization hiding behind TISA. There have been trade union actions against TISA’s commodification and privatization of services that should be rights.

 In the health sector (when Anil Gayan was the Minister), there was a lot of hysteria about the Minister’s decision to prevent hospital specialists also working in the private sector, which is a reasonable objective in LALIT’s opinion, in favour of all working people. Important unions leaders like Gopee, Sadien and Imrith surprisingly all supported the doctors who abuse the system and opposed the Minister’s reasonable aim. However, unions in the All Workers Federation (Nurses union, MLC) and All Workers Trade unions Federation (Nurses Assocation, PLHDWU) supported the Ministerial decision. With the new Minister Husnoo, there has been one meeting (as of an update to this article on 7 February 2017), but his policy is not yet clear.

 More generally, public sector unions nowadays show interest almost exclusively in the PRB Reports every 3-5 years, and then the post-PRB demands, then lie low. So, they are part of the bureacracy of the State, only making tiny manoeuvres.

 Private sector workers, with the “Awards” system, have minimum conditions by sector; so demobilized have all the unions except CTSP been that many Awards have remained unchanged for decades until the CTSP mobilized its members.

 In general, the new labour and industrial laws bind the working class into bureaucratic strategies even more than the previous Industrial Relations Act. Despite the changes to make some strikes no longer illegal, some unions have seemed to be “testing” the legislation on behalf of the State, while others have used the threat of strikes rather frivolously, without proper preparation.

 So, despite a series of crises in capitalism, it seems the union movement lacks a coherent analysis and strategy, and each federation, or even union, goes about its own business. Without a clear analysis and strategy, unions are bound to be only defending acquired rights, and occasionally seeking a new right, but never really bringing capitalism into question.

 It has not always been so, and no doubt will not always remain so.

 Remember that, in 1983 when there was a push towards neo-liberalism (the one just before the new push), and the MMM-PSM had just come into power, the unions joined forces behind the platform called “Pu ki lalit kontinye”, to oppose the Government. When, however, Paul Bérenger criticized it, Bizlall and his union following capitulated on the spot.

 How does a party like LALIT work with unions in such a downturn in working class struggle?

It is certainly difficult for LALIT to work with the trade union bureaucracies and leaderships in general for the simple reason that they are so deeply part of the State, at the present time. However, the grassroots workers, and sometimes up to delegate level, there are workers who thirst for a more political form of working class struggle. In general, we in LALIT will always (until the very eve of a socialist revolution) be bound to work with them in a form of “conflictural working arrangement”, as Ram Seegobin put it in a paper in 2013.

 The reasons LALIT works with the union movement, and persists with it, is that, whatever the leadership, however much it sells out, however opportunist it is, the trade unions are a form of organization that groups people together on the basis of their class.

 Perhaps one of the things we have learnt and learnt to share is what the – vanguard of the working class is: it is not the leadership, nor curiously is it those who run ahead. It is the workers who are, in their neighbourhoods and on their worksites, have the experience and knowledge to gain the respect of their colleagues at work over time. They are the real leaders – leaders on the work-site and leaders in the neighbourhood – that form the vanguard that is so essential to a party like LALIT linking up with the broad masses of the working class. The vanguard of experienced workers – often those who pull back from impulsive strikes precisely because they have experience – are those who link a political party like LALIT to the whole of the working class. This is in sharp contrast with the populists that have become so common world-wide; populists want an “atomized” assortment to follow someone who then is a caudillo.

 Other forms of worker organization?

When faced with this degree of generalized bureaucratization of trade unions, it is important to look to other forms of working class organization – existing and possible – as well as unions. For a start there are political parties with a working class program, like LALIT, and this, we must remember constitutes a form of working class organization – the most advanced form.

As well as associations and co-operatives, which are also often class based organizations, there are other dynamic forms of organization. For example, REVI LALIT distribution can become a network of writers and readers, of popularizers of LALIT’s program, as it develops.  Another example, is the kind of once-a-week work site “Parliament” that discusses, over lunch on say a Thursday, political events and workplace organization and conflicts.

 And we must continue with the most important strategy of all: the “labaz inter-sindikal” strategy, which is really the key, in the long run, to workers’ unity.

 In times when the working class is often on the defensive, it is important to identify and develop links with grassroots working class leaders on the shop floor and in the neighbourhood, and to continue working on a Program for socialism, which involves a counter-offensive.

 Rada Kistnasamy