Mauritius: "We Are Not Animals," Say Foreign Workers

Officially, everything is fine in the export processing zones (EPZs) in Mauritius. But, in reality, many foreign workers suffer dismal working conditions. Those who organise to improve their lot do so under the constant threat of intimidation and deportation.

By the end of December 2007, the number of enterprises in the EPZs totalled 404, employing 67,314 people among whom 32,973 were foreign workers from mainly China, India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.

These workers, according to the National Economic and Social Council (NESC), are essential for the economy of the southern African island state. The NESC is a statutory body created to aid consensus about social and economic issues in Mauritius.

Council chairperson Mohammad Vayid says the time when Mauritian enterprises thought of recruiting migrant workers on a temporary basis is gone. ''Our dependency on migrant qualified workers has become necessary as local workers do not perform well in certain tasks,'' he argues.

The NESC published a report in February 2007 which advocated that foreigners working on the island should enjoy the same rights as local workers. ''With globalisation, the migrant worker should be seen as an ally and not as a rival or a competitor,'' Vayid insists.

In the factories, things do not work this way. This is revealed by the public demonstrations, at times violent, by mostly foreign EPZ workers. They complain about low wages and generally poor conditions of work.

They are regularly seen sitting for days in front of the labour and industrial relations ministry's offices in Port Louis, attempting to lobby the authorities to intervene in their favour.

Foreign workers took to the streets several times during the past two years. Each time those considered as ''ring leaders'' were deported. Some 500 Sri Lankans were demanding better wages at the company Tropic Knits. In response, the Mauritian authorities deported 35 of them in August 2007.

At the Compagnie Mauricienne de Textile (CMT), a big factory employing more than 5,000 people, 177 foreigners were deported last year after taking part in an ''illegal demonstration'' about the lack of running water, the insufficient number of toilets and poor accommodation, among other complaints.

In 2006, some workers from China and India who had either tried to form a trade union or to protest were summarily deported. At times, peaceful demonstrations turned into riots which the police brutally suppressed.

''We are human beings, not animals,'' protesters would shout. They complained about poor working conditions in the factories. They also deplored the long working hours and being isolated from other workers.

Some of them have intolerable living conditions, sleeping in dormitories on benches without mattresses or in tiny bedrooms housing up to a dozen people.

Sometimes working conditions improved after interventions from the local authorities. But most of the time nobody knows really what's happening inside the factories and the dormitories as trade unionists are not allowed in.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) released a report at the end of April 2008 criticising Mauritius for restricting the principles and rights in all eight of the core International Labour Organisation (ILO) labour conventions - in spite of having ratified all of these international legal instruments.

ITUC promotes workers' rights and interests through international cooperation between trade unions while the ILO is a United Nations' body tasked with promoting labour rights globally.

The report says it is extremely difficult for trade unionists to approach workers in Mauritius's EPZs to organise them in trade unions. Union officials are compelled to wait outside the factory gates to meet workers. Many of the workers are women who are under pressure to go home.

This is indeed the case, confirms Reeaz Chuttoo from the Federation of Progressive Unions (FPU) in an interview with IPS. ''It is effectively getting more and more difficult to talk to the workers because we are not allowed inside the factory compound.''

He adds that particularly migrant workers are sometimes even held captive in their dormitories.

The trade unionists are also faced with the problem of communication with migrant workers because of the language barrier. Despite freedom of association being guaranteed by law in Mauritius, the effective exercise of this right is systematically denied in Mauritius, states the ITUC report.

The ILO has criticized the low level of collective bargaining in the EPZs, urging the government to take measures to ensure that this basic labour right becomes a reality. ''How can there be collective bargaining when we are not allowed to meet and discuss with the workers?'' Chuttoo asks again.

Special laws are applicable to the EPZs in Mauritius, providing for longer working hours: 45 hours per week and 10 hours compulsory overtime, if required. But, emphasises trade unionists, migrant workers work 25 hours of overtime per week. This is included in the contracts they sign in their home country before coming to Mauritius.

From Chuttoo's point of view, ''they should be happy since they have come here to make money. They are allowed to work as much overtime as they like''.

The local workers in the EPZs face similar challenges. They worry that the EPZs will not be sustainable in the long run. They are therefore concerned about losing their jobs if they contact trade unions or organise themselves in associations or refuse to do overtime.

Compulsory overtime work boils down to forced labour which is forbidden by law. It is also mentioned in the ITUC report.

However, says Chuttoo, ''if they don't do overtime they won't survive on the meagre salary they get''. Citing a recent survey by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) of Mauritius, he says, any worker getting less than 125 dollars a month is regarded as living in poverty.

''In the EPZ, a factory worker gets 107 dollars as a basic monthly salary. Had there not been overtime payment, these workers would fall into poverty,'' Chuttoo emphasises.

Owing to the lack of effective trade union representation, occupational health and safety hazards are sometimes not addressed in a timely fashion, if at all, according to the ITUC report.

The Mauritius Export Association (MEXA), representing EPZ employers, denies categorically that employers prevent trade unionists from organising EPZ workers.

''This is their job, not ours,'' says MEXA director Danielle Wong. ''They have to market their product to the workers.'' She also denies that foreign workers are paid less than locals. ''This is checked regularly by the labour and industrial relations ministry,'' she insists.

Wong adds that employers take all the necessary precautions to inform the migrant workers about their rights because they don't want ''the same old things to be repeated again''. Employers were blamed in the past for not having explained their rights to the migrant workers.

''This is mandatory. Moreover, the contracts are made available in several languages, including English and the home language of the workers,'' Wong declares. Interviews with the workers where their rights are explained to them are filmed.

Some employers interviewed by IPS argue that they have ''always'' respected the rules of ''ethical business''. Had this not been the case, they argue, ''we would not be able to export to the U.S. under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act or to European Union markets''.

Last year, big enterprises like Star Knitwear and CMT that together employ more than 10,000 people, were blamed for the alleged ill treatment of migrant workers. Their directors sharply denied these allegations, pointing to audits carried out by local authorities as well as the buyers themselves.

''If they keep on buying from us, it means that our factories respect international norms,'' insists one of them.

The labour and industrial relations ministry has ''noted'' the ITUC report. The minister concerned, Vasant Bunwaree, will not comment on the contents before seeking explanations from the ITUC on specific points in the report. IPS understands the issue has been raised with the ITUC.

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