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Textile workers challenge the 12-hour shift imposed by CIEL Textile bosses


On Monday 26 September, Dhaneshwar Boobun, one of 180 workers who are challenging the bosses in the Permanent Arbitration Tribunal, was heard by the Tribunal. For an hour, Dhaneshwar Boobun explained how due to restructuring, management in November 2003 informed workers that their normal work shift would be extended from 8 hours to 12 hours. Workers protested, and demanded that negotiations be opened up. Management refused to change its stand, and imposed the 12-hour shift system unilaterally. Workers (including Mr. Boobun) formally complained to the Ministry of Labour, and sent a letter to the Minister of Labour. Bosses refused to negotiate reverting to the 8-hour shift, or even increasing basic salary accordingly. Before the introduction of the 12-hour shift system, any work performed after 8-hours was automatically considered "overtime", and bosses had to pay 1.5 or even twice more for overtime hours. Under the 12-hour shift system, Mr. Boobun said, "overtime becomes normal time".

In Mauritian labour law, in the Free Zone, even if 10 hours of overtime can be imposed (if workers are given at least 24 hours notice), a "normal working week" is specifically described as consisting of 45 hours. The labour law for the free zone also states that if higher wages or better work conditions are provided to workers, bosses cannot reduce them to make them less favourable.

Mr. Boobun explained how after the 12-hour system was introduced, many workers left (or were sacked) because they could not work such long hours. There were four shifts: A, B, C, D. With the introduction of the 12-hour shift system, shift D was eliminated. Over 100 workers that Mr. Boobun personally knows, have left. There may be more workers that he does not know of. Mr. Boobun explained how before the 12-hour shift, there were 9 workers in a "crew". Now, there are only 6-7 workers. Sometimes, even less, because a workers or two may be absent. Absent workers can no longer be replaced within the present system because other workers have either been working the previous 12-hour shift, or will work in the next shift. Which means that on top of working longer hours, workers have to work harder. The number of machines they are in charge of has also increased, he said.

Mr. Boobun said that such long hours penalised workers. "We have practically no social life", he said. He said that the shift is so tiring that workers have to take "sick leave" just to be able to rest enough to face another working day. He explained how when the 12-hour shift system had been introduced, there was one day that he remembers (14 February, 2003) when 52 workers were absent in shift A. (There are in total, some 250 workers in Shifts A, B and C).

Mr. Boobun explained how now, management is handing out "warning" letters if workers take sick leave (which is supposed to be a "right" according to labour law). Some workers are even being suspended and sacked for having taken sick leave. Workers in this situation have taken the case to Industrial Court. Mr. Boobun handed the Tribunal a copy of a "Severe Warning" letter given to one worker who had taken "sick leave". He said that there were several workers present in the Tribunal who had either been "warned" or "suspended and taken to a "disciplinary board" for having taken sick leave.

Mr. Boobun also said that the number of work accidents had increased ever since the introduction of the 12-hour shift system. In 2002, when they worked on the 8-hour shift system, there were only 13 accidents in Consolidated Dyeing Ltd. In 2003, there were 19; and in 2004, there were 26 accidents. Last year, he said, there was even a fatal accident, something he never remembers having happened before. A worker, Mr. Vikramsingh Seeruthun died because of a work accident. Mr. Boobun says that workers work with hazardous chemicals, machines, hot water. Workers get so tired with the 12-hour shift that more accidents occur.

Mr. Boobun said he has worked 14 years in CIEL. There are several companies that form the CIEL group: textile companies such as Consolidated Dyeing Ltd, Dyers and Finishers, Ferney Spinning, amongst others. There are also companies in the sugar business, and in the tourism sector. Mr. Boobun said that he worked in the Chemical Store and was employed by Dyers and Finishers. He recently got promoted and was informed that he is now employed by Consolidated Dyeing Ltd, although his work-card still says that he works for Dyers and Finishers. He said that he had read in the newspapers that CIEL was among the top companies in the 100 big companies in Mauritius. He said that according to what was published in the newspapers, CIEL is making profit.

The lawyer representing bosses in the Tribunal asked Mr. Boobun whether he was aware that Consolidated Dyeing was not making profit. Mr. Booben said that he was not aware of it.

It seems that workers can be shifted from one company to the other, but that profits can't.

The workers' lawyer is Jean-Claude Bibi. The workers are members of AGWU (that have members who work in the sugar industry as well as in textiles), but lodged their case individually as "negotiations" between workers' representatives, and later, their union, and CIEL bosses were stuck because CIEL bosses refused to negotiate workers' demand to revert back to the 8-hour shift or to increase basic salary. Lalit members are active in this workers' movement.