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Working People in times of Economic Crisis: Construction


Casual workers in construction

"There is a new method sub-contractors are using to pay less wages for more work", a casual worker on a construction site in the West, reported to LALIT. The sub-contractor recruits a team of workers for their site. Then they single one of the more experienced workers out. They offer that worker a higher pay packet and a commission if he can get other workers to work faster. If the worker accepts, the sub-contractor announces to the other workers that this particular worker will be leading the team. Given that the worker is an experienced one, no one objects. This worker sets a really fast work pace. He gets the manev (helpers) to prepare huge quantities of concrete that would keep skilled construction workers busy for one or two hours past their usual finishing time. All other construction workers on the site get a daily wage, not an hourly wage, or on the basis of piece work. Except for the one worker the sub-contractor had singled out, of course.

On Saturdays, because a normal day is half-day, workers are told not to come to work for some technical reason or other.

In one site where workers experienced this new work "system", after debating what to do, workers informed the worker the sub-contractor had bought off that they would not work more than a daily wage rate worth of work. And as they were told not to work on Saturdays, they said they wouldn't come on Mondays either. They told the sub-contractor that the "technical" problems that disrupted work on Saturdays would probably still be there on Mondays too. They know they risk being laid off by doing this, but even though work is harder to get these days, they feel that the risk is still worth it.

Ten years ago, sub-contractors would never have been able to introduce such a "system". Construction workers would have walked out on the spot, to say the least. In 1987, Construction workers became a symbol of the supposed "economic miracle" in Mauritius when late-Gaetan Duval, extreme-right party leader and Senior Minister in the Jugnauth government declared in a public meeting that construction workers were so well-off because of full-employment that whenever they were offered work, they would call their wife, say she was called Solange, "Solange, bring my diary would you?".

There was a period of full "employment" in the mid-80's, but most of it was either in the Free Zone, where workers had to work for up to 90 hours a week, working long hours of overtime to get a reasonable wage packet. Either that, or do two or three jobs at the same time. During that period, the nature of "employment" also began to change - more and more people doing casual work, on contract, seasonal work, temporary work instead of being employed, with minimum rights under labour legislation, and with relatively more job security. Construction workers in the past, were in the main, employed full-time by construction companies. It was during the so-called "economic miracle" period that construction companies began to decrease the number of full-time employees, take on sub-contractors and at the same time, take on construction workers on short-term contracts. They did this, at first, by paying more money for contract work. Later on, in the 90's, when full-employment ended, wages began to freeze.

Now when unemployment is on the rise (officially 8% discounting thousands of "voluntarily" retired workers in the sugar industry and retrenched workers who have been encouraged to open up small businesses by government sponsored micro-credit), and when work in the construction sector is receding, sub-contractors are beginning to use foul tactics.