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Short History of Labour in Mauritius by Lindsey Collen


In historical terms, it is easy to consider the history of Mauritius, from French colonization until today, in three 100-year parts (forgive me for some approximation – it is in the interest of understanding the general flow of history):

* 100 years of “slavery” (about 1720-1820). Slavery was the legal framework for cane and sugar labour, whose production soon became the “purpose” of the colony.

* 100 years of “indenture” (about 1820-1920). This labour law was a hybrid between slavery and wage slavery, and covered nearly all work.

* 100 years of wage slavery (about 1920-2020) as the main form of labour. People sell their time (labour power) to either a boss direct, or to the boss’s state apparatus.

 Slavery as labour law (about 1720-1820)

The first 100 years of Mauritian history had, for labour law, the Code Noir or Slave Law, say the years 1720-1820. This Code defined the legal limits of the exploitation of labour. Slave Law was essentially the legal framework for extracting labour from many humans on behalf of a very few other humans. (Until today, this is incidentally the main function of the Mauritian state – creating the conditions for the extraction of value for a few from the kuraz of the many.)

 In fact, in the case of Mauritius, “slavery” itself is essentially the labour law imposed i.e. how the State organized for masters to be able to extract value from the work of other people (mainly slaves).

 Here are excerpts from an early version of the French Code Noir which was published with an alternative title “the anthology of rules”. So, although a master owned his slaves, this atrocity being the foundation of slavery, there was a legal framework for his extraction of work from his slaves.

 Work week: No work could be forced out of slaves on Sundays in cane or sugar production. This was part of a religious edict. (Curiously, it is something more recent codes like the Employment Rights Act of 2008 have de-regulated.)

Wages (in kind): Each week, masters have to pay their slaves over 10 years-old, 2 ½ jars of cassava flour or 3 cassavas weighing at least 2 ½ pounds each, or equivalent, together with 2 lbs. salt beef or 3 lbs. fish, or equivalent, and one-half of this amount of all these rations to children from when they are weaned till they are 10 years old.

Prohibition on day off for farming: It is prohibited to give time off for a slave to grow his own food, in exchange for less rations.

Uniforms: Each year, masters have to furnish each slave with 2 outfits of guni, or 4 square metres of guni.

Property ownership: Property acquired by a slave was property of his owner.

Gatherings/unions: Slaves are not allowed to meet with slaves of other masters, day or night, and not even for weddings.

Children: Children of a slave marriage belong to the master of the woman slave.

Arms: Slaves are not allowed to carry a stick or weapon.

Commerce: Slaves cannot sell anything – especially cane or sugar, which they cannot sell even with their master’s permission. They could not carry any merchandise without written authorization.

Religion: Slaves were baptized Catholic by force.

Punishment: Punishment was whipping and branding and the death penalty. Both owner and State could punish a slave. If the State punished a slave, compensation for loss of the slave in death penalty, for example, was paid to the master. The State knew that the only way that bosses would not just hide the crime would be if they were compensated.

 The only way to oppose this form of labour exploitation was by direct action:

- Near-spontaneous rebellion.

- Poisoning your master, or getting rid of him by some other means.

- Becoming a runaway.

- Committing suicide.

 The consequences were drastic: cutting off an ear, branding, execution.

 Alternatively, you could, if you had the luck to be owned by a “kind” master, be so compliant that he would promise later manumission (freedom) for you and/or your child.

 And in the latter years, there was a State officer called a “Protector of Slaves”. He was the predecessor of the modern “Labour Inspector”. The Labour Inspector pretends that his aim is to protect workers, just as the protector of slaves pretended its aim in life was to protect slaves. (Their real aim is to maintain you in wage slavery, or pure slavery.)

 The end of slavery did  not come about as a direct result of the uprisings of slaves, although these weakened the masters’ rule. It was a class struggle, however, that was the major factor – not the class struggle between slaves and masters, but the class struggle between the new manufacturers and the old ruling class of nobles and land-owners. The new bosses owned a new invention called a “factory”, where a new class of wage-paid workers, especially in Britain mass-produced goods in cities like Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle and Manchester, for this new class of employers just come to power, the bourgeoisie, and they had to depose the old class of slave owners (and near-owners of other tied labour). The bourgeoisie wanted masters to pay their workers money wages. This way, they (ex-slaves) could then use the money to buy spoons and plates, cloth, pins and needles, pots and pans, sweets and mass-produced balms and pills, all from the new industrial employers with loads of consumer goods on their hands. By 1833, the British State declared slavery itself illegal in Britain and its empire. (Curiously, in a recent tweet by the UK Treasury in response to a Freedom of Information demand, and I quote the Treasury “in 1833 paid £20 million, 40% of its national budget, to buy freedom for all slaves in the Empire. The amount of money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act was so large that it wasn’t paid off until 2015.” The amount was astronomical at the time, and the interest rate to private banks was huge.) 

 The money slave-owners in Mauritius received turned them into modern capitalists, who paid wages, even if for 100 years they continued at the same time to dish out rations in exchange for work.

 Indenture as Labour Law (about 1820-1920)

Indenture was not merely “immigration”, as mainstream politicians often pretend, but it was a new legal framework for extraction of labour – one that fell mid-way between the Code Noir and present-day labour laws governing wage slavery.

 Indentured labourers were tied to one sugar estate not for life, nor in perpetuity like for slaves, but for a period of five years. They were under a kind of house arrest, and were not allowed to leave the Estate to which they were allotted. If they did, they were hunted down and taken to the Vagrants’ Depot still visible on the Pointe aux Sables Road. Their children were theirs. They could marry without permission. They were not the property of someone else.

 Half of wages under indenture for immigrants and liberated slaves from slave ships, was in the form of rations in kind (specified in the same detail as the Code Noir) and the other half in money wages. Work conditions were better than under slavery e.g. there was a clause in the “Labour Laws”, as they were already called, forbidding sugar estate owners from using the hospitals, which they had to have for sick workers, as prisons! It makes the mind boggle. Although there were two well-nigh-identical labour law codes, one for “immigrants” and the other for “liberated slaves”, they were bound into a single anthology in 1867. All the laws concerning actual “ownership” of people as well as their labour power were abolished. But much else remained the same. There was fracture in history at this point, but also continuity.

 For example, it was difficult as ever to plan and then mobilize so as to improve your work conditions collectively as indentured labourers or liberated slaves. The law specifically banned what was called “coalition” of workers. So, again most struggles took the form of direct action, similar to what happened under slavery. Now there was a Protector of Immigrants to replace the Protector of Slaves. In the same offices. With the same function.

 Wage Slavery Law (1920 – 2020)

As indenture was becoming illegal, so the working class began to mobilize. Now instead of being engaged for five years with one boss, workers could sell their time – sell so many hours per day, or per week, or per month to a master, now called an employer. He buys your time, and your labour power, or kuraz, as we accurately call it. And you have the right to change master. But you cannot escape wage slavery, you can merely change from one master to another. And the balance of power between classes gives you little choice in the matter. You have no other way to survive.

 And this new form of exploitation of labour allowed for the beginnings of collective action, planned and executed by workers.

 Since then there have been two (and a half?) periods of mass mobilization of workers. It is like an ebb-and-flow, two periods when the working class crystalized as a class, and acted in its interests.

 The First Working Class rebellions: 1934-1944

As early as 1924, there was a march of 800 working men from the country-side on the issue of water. Maurice Curé called the march to Port Louis. It  marked the beginning of a new era. One hundred years later, the issue of water is again central to the working class agenda. 

 And by January 1936, Curé had called a big meeting of working men at Senn Mars where urban skilled workers in their felt hats and rural labourers with black umbrellas converged, and amongst the five resolutions voted, one was for Independence of Mauritius. This was the very first call for Independence, and it came from the working class. Curé and his friends, after this meeting with its resolutions, prepared a draft manifesto for the Labour Party was set up a month or so later. And by 1938, 80 years ago, there was the first celebration at a nation-wide level of Labour Day on 1 May.

 From this period onwards, however difficult it still was and still is, all change that comes about is a direct result of working class action, based on working class manifestos. So, half of this period was still under British rule, half has come after Independence. And we can say that de-colonization began with that 800-strong march to Port Louis in January, 1924. And it is not yet over, as we will see.

 So, the history of this period is really the subject of this article, based on my talk at the GSEA on 30 April. To understand this subject, it was useful to look at the history leading up to the present times. We are descendants of slaves and then of indentured labourers and freed slaves.

 From 1921, the very first union was formed. National Trade union Movement. It was illegal.

 By 1934, after the water march, there was, 10 years later, a huge march of workers and the unemployed on Government House, demanding better wages and work. In 1935, there was the first big mass petition signed by workers. The methods of struggle had emerged: marches, meetings, manifestos, demands, petitions.

 In 1936, as we have seen, Independence, thus de-colonization, was already on the working class’s agenda. By then, the workers had set up their own party. And in its early days we must remember that Labour was a working class party. Dr. Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, when he came into politics, first stood as candidate against the Labour Party, and only later did the blocked petty-bourgeois clique around the Advance Group together with the L’Express Group clinch the take-over of Labour (they literally did a “takeover”) – as late as the 1950s.

 So, in 1937 the stage was set, at the height of the Great Depression, for big rebellions and revolts. And sure enough, there were generalized uprisings on all the sugar estates. There were new forms of action, not just strikes, but also labourers setting fire to cane plantations  and sabotaging sugar mills.

 Demands were for:

- Wages and proper food.

- Housing

- Health care

- Pensions

 The reply of the colonial administration and the sugar estates was violent repression. Four labourers were shot dead.

 The Hooper Commission Report into the rebellions showed that workers were justified in their complaints. And from then onwards, the State introduced pensions, some health care, and wage increases, and in order to introduce some democracy, for the very first time, there were village councils. And by 1938, there was already generalized talk of a “minimum wage”, which was in fact introduced for the first time 80 years later, in 2018.

 By 1943, there were new rebellions all over the sugar estates. With the same pattern of repression, again four labourers shot dead. A Commission of Enquiry and a few more rights.

 And this decades-long period of mobilization was what created trade unions, two political parties (Labour and the Independent Forward Block), the Ligue Communiste, as well as the beginnings of a welfare state, and the will for Independence.

 The Second Working Class rebellions: 1969-1981

Around  Independence, at which time the sugar estates’ bosses, who were against Independence, had kindled race and communal violence, a State of Emergency was declared. Indecently soon after Independence, the anti-Independence party of the sugar estate bosses, the PMSD, was invited into Government alongside the Labour Party. Symbolically, the French ambassador put the two leaders’ hands together in a public ceremony.

 The gaping vacuum for the working class, in terms of leadership, was huge. Its Party had first been taken over by the petty bourgeoisie and was now in an alliance with the sugar oligarchs! Even workers who had gone over to the PMSD or CAM on communal grounds felt sold out by their leaders who collaborated with Labour, on the one hand, and the bosses, on the other.

 Everything was ripe for a new working class challenge.

 And rebellions began immediately after Independence. There was a strike of government road building workers with rioting in Desforges Street in Port Louis. There was a rolling strike of women and men labourers against sex abuse at Medine Sugar Estate in 1970. There was a collective movement at Anna Estate, replacing the piece-rate system that caused the bosses to fire the entire workforce. And then there was the huge Port and Transport strike of 1971. The reaction was repressive as ever. The State of Emergency, only recently on hold after the race riots around Independence, was slapped back on again. Jail for over a 100 trade unionists and members of the new emerging working class party, the MMM (Mouvement Militant Mauricien). And this State of Emergency would haunt the country until 1976. And allow the new repressive trade union legislation, the Industrial Relations Act to be passed in 1973.

 But State of Emergency or not, there was, in May 1975, a massive nation-wide students’ strike. It was mainly aimed at the decolonization of education and in favour of free and equal education for all at secondary level. Students demanded that the medium be Kreol, instead of English and French. After weeks and weeks of small strikes and demonstrations in colleges all over the country, a day was decided  upon, a place named. Port Louis on 20 May. And students converged in their tens of thousands. Only to be greeted by the riot police, led by Rewcastle, the British security advisor to the Government in person, who watched as the police beat up the students on the Grand River North West Bridge, as thousands converged on Port Louis. Students were injured. Others were arrested.

 The IMF and World Bank came in with their loans in exchange for, inter alia,  devaluation of the currency.

 The working class was furious. It had begun to organize independently. The monthly magazine Lalit de Klas (that later became LALIT) was circulating in all work sectors. Limited strikes took place regularly. unions got stronger. The MMM was influenced by its left tendency, Lalit de Klas.

 By 1979, everything came to a head. After a year of planning with meetings big and small all over the 21 sugar estates, a huge nation-wide strike in the sugar industry was declared. After one week of tools down, as pre-arranged after many meetings with the delegates of the dock union, the dock workers came in on strike, too. Transport workers unions, with their own problems, joined the strike. Other unions did too. A second week, now a general strike, saw mobilization reach every corner of the country. The situation was pre-revolutionary. The Government capitulated on one point: they withdrew permits for two sugar estates to close down their mills. But on the other demands, neither the State nor the bosses gave an inch. And then there was a hunger strike by the general strike leadership: no food, no water. Bands of workers from all over the country, as if on pilgrimages, came to the Company Gardens to visit the hunger strikers. By the fourth day, so galvanized was the working class, that the Government and bosses ceded, and signed the Lakor 23 Ut (August 23 Agreement). It was agreed that no worker would lose his job. If the private sector did not take back a workers, the State would give them a job. The unions in the sugar industry would get recognition, which had been blocked by bureaucratic means for years. The Industrial Relations Act would be amended.

 The Agreement was not respected.

 So, in September 1980, there was a second huge mobilization, that had had one whole year to simmer. it was different from but as vast as “August ’79”. Mobilization was around a hunger strike of trade union leaders, with water this time. It was in Rue Brabant at the old GWF building.

 And by the third week, the Government respected all the points in the 23 August Agreement.

 And as Chagossians gained experience in the movements around August 1979 and September 1981 – many worked in the Municipalities and in docks, in the sisal factory and on cane plantations – the women of Chagos and LALIT women prepared and held huge street demonstrations against the base, for the right to return and for re-unification of the country. It ended in a confrontation between the riot police and the 150 demonstrating women:  the women won. But, eight of us had charges for illegal demonstration against us under the infamous Public Order Act, which was part of the vestigial State of Emergency. And it was this street action that ultimately made the movement in Mauritius for the triple demand: demilitarization, reunification of Mauritius to include Chagos and the right to return with full reparations for Chagossians.  

 And that was towards the end of the second big working class movement in Mauritius.

 Any gains we have today, come from those huge movements. That is why we still have free education and health, pensions for all, village elections, even some subsidized foods. It is on the backs especially of the working class in the August 1979 strike that we have what we have today. Little as it still is.

 The Defensive Struggle of All Workers’ Conference

Remember I said there were two and a half (with a question mark) periods of working class struggle over the 100 years of wage slavery? The first period (in the 1930s) and second one (in the 1970s), we have just seen outlined. The half-one is only one-half, because it was defensive, because the leadership mobilized exceptionally, to the level of all the trade union delegates, which was exceptional, it was only to this level. The shop floor, the fields, the offices were not mobilized on a mass scale. So, it was neither a counter-offensive movement (like the early Labour and early MMM were) nor did it involve the broad masses of workers. All Workers was alive in times of relative working class weakness, weakness for many objective reasons, plus the subjective reason of the shadow of the MMM’s treachery.

 But the All Workers’ Conference repulsed the conditions that the IMF and World Bank thought, and the State thought, they could impose. They thought some 15 whole years had passed since the biggest mass movements in history August 1979 and September 1980. They thought it would be possible to impose the conditions. There had, it is true, been the DWC movement of 800 construction workers. There had been the CHA housing workers’ movement of another 800 or so construction workers. There had been the Muvman Lakaz (homeless peoples’ movement) demonstrations. These three had coalesced. But they were small movements.

 All Workers then brought together the delegates of all unions for four years.

 And this way, IMF and World Bank conditions were opposed.

 We stood together and told the Government that, though the State may have agreed to the conditions, the conditions did not hold because the working people had not made the undertaking nor even been informed of it. And delegates of all unions, when they act together on the basis of a program, makes for a very strong challenge. The conditions could not be imposed.

 However, the union leadership (bureaucratized by the Industrial Relations Act, and by relative demobilization) did not want the mobilization to get beyond its delegates, whom it could control, to its grassroots-level of members who would, they feared, challenge them. So, the leaderships pronounced that delegates only could mobilize. Not members. No sooner had a group of workers in a sugar mill got together with the All Workers’ Conference delegates than the leaders of the unions in this sector set about sabotaging the AWC, which finally civil service union leadership of Rashid Imrith, actually sold out. So, it was “a half movement”, in the end, never really getting masses of workers mobilized. And until today there is this problem.

 union leaders would rather hand out leaflets to passers-by, or gather signatures for a petition in the Company Gardens, than do the political work of mobilizing their own members! Mobilized members causes them too much “trouble”.

 And so, it is still today difficult as ever for us to plan together, as workers, and then to mobilize for action, so as to improve our work conditions collectively, as wage slaves and then to overthrow this Order of the Bosses.

 So, today we have a Labour Inspector who replaced the Protector of Immigrants. In the same offices. Fulfilling the same function. People called the Labour Inspectorate in Port Louis “Imigrasyon” until recently! And we still have laws that make strikes well-nigh impossible, that cause unions to have to spend all their time in offices in Port Louis, and the bosses have some control over unions through the check-off system, the time-off system and in general, through the ease with which they can fire anyone with impunity.

 And even decolonization is not over yet:

- Labour laws are still left-overs from colonization

- Land in Mauritius is still occupied by the sugar estates and cane, and when cane is uprooted, the land is sold off as real estate to the highest bidding millionaire, causing the threat of re-colonization.

- Chagos is still occupied illegally by Britain, and its ally the USA.

- The Kreol language is still banned in Parliament and as medium in schools. 

 So, celebrating 50 Years’ Independence and also Labour Day remind us of the tasks before us. Many of these tasks are important, in themselves but also because they makes us stronger in the struggle against capitalism as a system of wage slavery, of alienation and pillage, of exploitation and domination, and in the struggle for socialism.

 Lindsey Collen