Unions in Mauritius fight for equal pay for immigrants

By Roy Landersen
August 10, 2020

The Confederation of Workers in the Public and Private Sectors (CTSP) in Mauritius, backed by other unions, is campaigning for the largely immigrant workforce in the textile and garment industries to get the national minimum wage of 9,400 Mauritian rupees per month ($237). The unions are demanding this be a universal payment for all workers — immigrant and native-born — who lose their jobs during the government’s ongoing coronavirus-justified lockdown on most production.

They are also demanding workers still on the job have hygienic facilities at their workplaces. As a result of the campaign, the CTSP’s membership is growing.

Mauritius, an island country of 1.3 million people off East Africa in the Indian Ocean, is home to more than 45,000 migrant workers, many working in textile and garment. They have been hit by the wave of mass unemployment sweeping these industries in countries from Africa to South and East Asia.

Even before coronavirus, they faced low wages, long hours, squalid living conditions –– sometimes residing in dormitories behind factories — and risking deportation when they stand up to demand better pay and conditions.

Mauritius was an uninhabited island network before it was colonized by the Dutch in 1598, and then French colonial rulers who brought in African slaves to toil in the growing sugar industry. In 1810, the British Empire seized the country as a bounty of war. Under pressure from a growing abolitionist movement at home, London abolished slavery in 1835, replacing slaves with indentured laborers, largely from India, over the next few decades. The country won its independence in 1968, but English domination continued. The garment and textile industry has grown rapidly since the 1970s.

A common practice among coyote recruitment agencies searching for workers today, mainly from Bangladesh but also Madagascar, Nepal and India, is to charge as much as $800 for “training” and travel to Mauritius. This places the workers in a form of debt bondage that can take months, even years, to pay off.

After a sustained 16-year campaign of pickets and protests by the CTSP and other unions, the government finally passed a new labor law last October that made concessions on the rights of workers.

The Workers’ Rights Act mandated compensation for job termination, portable retirement benefits, restrictions on contract labor, equal pay for equal work and paid vacations. It also introduced unemployment benefits for up to 12 months and regularized hours of work.

However, the bosses seized upon the onset of the coronavirus epidemic and related government-imposed shutdowns, which gave employers an opening to pressure the government to suspend or reverse most of these gains. And they used the threat of job loss and unemployment to threaten and intimidate workers.

The unions have fought the bosses’ moves to gut workers’ protections, but so far have only been able to force the government to continue the Portable Severance Fund, which protects all workers who are laid off. All employers have to contribute to the fund.

Prime Minister Pravin Jugnauth told the workers the rest of the law would be suspended until 2024. “Many migrant workers haven’t received their salaries for over three months,” Jane Ragoo, CTSP general secretary said, vowing the union will fight to win their pay.