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The struggle of Free Zone textile Workers of CIEL


On Thursday 27th January in Port Louis, workers of Dyers and Finishers (DNF) and Consolidated Dyeing Ltd (CDL) went to the Permanent Arbitration Tribunal for their case against their employer. Dyers and Finishers Ltd and Consolidated Dyeing Ltd. are part of the CIEL group that owns Floreal Knitwear and Tropic Knits, two big Free Zone textile companies in Mauritius. Workers there have been protesting against the fact that since January 2003, their boss changed their work conditions unilaterally. Before January 2003, they worked on 8-hour shifts. Then bosses imposed a new work regime where they had (and still have) to work 12-hour shifts with no pay increase. Which means that they work two and a half hours extra every working day for the same wage.

At the PAT, bosses offered to give a small pay increase if workers reach a target of 30 tons production a week. Workers are rejecting this proposal. They see it as being ludicrous as it is not often that a 30-ton production target is required of them. Dhaneshwar Boobun, whose case is being heard, handed the PAT a document saying so yesterday. In the document, he also states that ever since the introduction of the 12-hour shift, the number of major injuries has markedly gone up. One young worker, and inhabitant of Triolet, died after a work accident last year. These workers handle dangerous chemicals in their work place. Dhaneshwar Boobun says that ideally, he would prefer that the 8-hour shift be re-introduced. If not, then basic salary must be increased.

When they protested in January 2003, bosses said the 12-hour shift system would only be on a trial basis, and said they would accept to open up negotiations. However, bosses categorically refused to change work conditions, and stalled negotiations. Workers re-organised and decided to go on strike if bosses refused negotiations. Their boss reacted by saying that they would get Prime Minister Berenger to declare the strike illegal!

Workers were to hit against a repressive industrial legislation barrier called the Industrial Relations Act (IRA). The IRA stipulates that to go on strike, workers or their union (if it is recognised by their employer) have to report an industrial dispute with the Minister of Labour and Industrial Relations. They can only go on strike if within 21 days, the Minister does not refer the case to a Tribunal or Commission. Ever since 1973, consecutive Ministers almost always send such cases to some Tribunal or other where far away from the work-site, the case sometimes takes years to be heard. Once the case has been referred to a Tribunal or Commission, if workers go on strike, the strike becomes ILLEGAL. Workers who take part or assist in an illegal strike risk up to 3 months imprisonment. As Lalit militant Ram Seegobin pointed out live on a Radio-Plus debate with Sylvio Michel, leader of Les Verts party on Sunday, this clause (Section 102 of the IRA), is a legacy of the slavery era in Mauritius.

So CIEL workers started the legal procedures to be able to go on a legal strike. The case of DNF and CDL workers is an unusual one because some 180 workers there declared individual disputes at the Tribunal last year. Usually it is a recognised union that reports an industrial, or sometimes, one or two workers report disputes individually. In 1992, 542 public sector workers in the Development Workers Corporation (DWC) reported industrial disputes individually. Lalit actively supported this movement. As the Minister of Labour and Industrial Relations did not refer their dispute to a Tribunal or Commission within the 21 days period, they went on strike. The Jugnauth-Berenger government at the time, sacked all 800 workers who went on strike. The case took seven years in Industrial Court but ended with victory for the workers. The judgement ruled that the strike was perfectly legal.

Lalit militants are actively supporting DNF and CDL workers in this movement. In this case, the Minister of Labour and Industrial Relations referred all the individual disputes to the PAT. When the case was fixed, management posted an unsigned notice on the workplace stating that it had been "arranged" with the Tribunal president that only a few workers go to the Tribunal for their case. Workers heard that their boss had asked the PAT not to summon all the workers as this would "interfere with production". However, all of them received a letter from the PAT summoning them for their case. So there they went in March last year. That day, the PAT President Tegally last year gave a ruling that he would not object to all 180 workers coming to the Tribunal to hear their case. Some weeks later, the government revoked the PAT President. The removed PAT President said publicly on radio that the reason given for his revocation was that the government intended to dismantle the Tribunal. Yet after Mr. Tegally had been dismissed, the government nominated a new PAT President, Mr. Rashid Hossen.

In June 2004, the next time the workers all went to hear their case at the Tribunal, they were greeted with a line of policemen and were told they could not go inside the Tribunal. Only five workers chosen by the PAT President were called in. The other workers who had come for their case were not allowed in. The PAT President did not allow two of the five who were called in to speak, and even refused to take a letter of protest that one of the workers inside the Tribunal tried to give him. Workers outside had asked this worker to hand the letter to the PAT President as no one at the Tribunal would accept the letter.

The new PAT President said that he had decided to hear only ONE worker and that other workers should not come to the Tribunal. This is how Dhaneshwar Boobun, worker of Dyers and Finishers Ltd (DNF) got to be designated by the Tribunal.

In the meantime, the CIEL group is introducing the 12-hour shift in other companies that it owns despite workers and union protests. Bosses are doing this despite the fact that labour laws say that bosses cannot reduce wages and change work conditions for the worse. The Export Enterprises (Remuneration Order) Regulations 1984 that regulates work conditions in the Free Zone stipulates in Section (5) that "nothing in these regulations shall (1) (a) prevent an employer from paying a worker remuneration at a rate higher than that specified in the First schedule or from providing him with conditions of employment more favourable than those specified in the Second Schedule; (b) authorise an employer to reduce a worker's remuneration or to alter his conditions of employment so as to make them less favourable to the worker." The only way workers can get bosses to respect labour law is by stopping work, and suing their employer for breach of contract. After the usual ritual of going to Court for months and months, and sometimes years and years, workers might then win their Court case. Even when they do win, all they get is 6 times the amount of severance allowance that they would have been given if they were formally given a notice that they would be dismissed.

Today, on the anniversary of the abolition of slavery, leaders of the Berenger-Jugnauth regime, leaders of the Labour Party opposition, and representatives of communal organisations are paying plenty of lip-service to the horror of slavery before 1835. Good. Slavery is a heinous crime against humanity. They would do better by looking at the legacy of slavery that lives on within labour legislation that affects every single worker in Mauritius today.