Fairness on Trial

Is it so difficult for a minister to realize that a salary of Rs 1500-2150 paid to school cleaners should be anathema in modern Mauritius?

The plight of the women cleaners in the second week of their hunger strike rapidly became a cause célèbre. It yet again epitomized the failure of government to judiciously arbiter and resolve problems faced by citizens through objective analysis and constructive dialogue. It once again exposed the continued lack of good judgement in the decision making process of government. Already, the government’s inability to upbraid and sanction the widely condemned behaviour of several of its members has seriously dented its standing. No amount of daily inept TV propaganda can change that.

To be able to govern and administer the affairs of the State, the government must be able in respect of every problem it encounters to rationally separate the wheat from the chaff, come to sensible conclusions and demonstrate sound judgement and cogent decision making acumen at all times.

The case of the women cleaners is a case in point. From reports, the 333 cleaners are employed by private sector contractors to clean schools. The trade unions representing the employees of the private sector have been steadfastly leading the battle for the rights of the women cleaners for months. We are no longer in pre-independence Mauritius when the order of the day was shameless exploitation of the worker, when epic strikes organized by trade unions were the only way to wrest better conditions of employment. In independent Mauritius, the role and responsibility of every government is to objectively examine the facts of any strike action and to act as a fair and independent arbiter.

It was therefore unbecoming of the government spokesman to take refuge behind remuneration laws and argue that the salaries of some Rs 1500-2150 per month obtained by the cleaners on hunger strike are only for two hours of work daily and that their conditions of work are established and governed by the National Remuneration Board. It was also quite unseemly of his part to clamour that government will not yield on the issue. In a statement in the National Assembly this week, the Minister of Labour has also brandished the red flag of existing labour laws and the legal framework to justify the government stance. This is hardly the approach to be expected of any caring government, let alone one purportedly committed to serve the people and eliminate poverty.

Fair remuneration

Instead, the role of government is to put an end to any form of exploitation and to ensure that every worker obtains, especially after nearly 50 years of independence, a fair and decent remuneration for his/her labour. As a nation, we must value and support workers ready to work to earn their livelihoods and stand on their own feet. In the case of the cleaners, this means investigating their conditions of work through the Ministry of Labour to ascertain whether they are being fairly paid or otherwise. For example, is it fair and in order for private contractors to employ them on the basis of contracts of work for limited hours of work?

The role of the Ministry of Labour is to find out through the inspectorate whether their conditions of work are in compliance with law and the spirit of the law and whether the hourly rate paid to them for their cleaning work is fair and comparable to that obtained by cleaners employed in similar posts in the country such as those employed under the care of school PTAs whose conditions of service have recently been reviewed thanks to the actions of the trade unions.

The principle of equal pay for equal work should prevail, the more so as it is an established fact that the workmanship, productivity, efficiency and standard of cleanliness achieved by workers of cleaning contractors is much higher, hence the pervasive shift in policy decision across the country to subcontract the cleaning of buildings and public spaces to private cleaning contractors. Higher productivity must be more adequately remunerated.

More importantly, government must urgently examine the grievances of the cleaners and study ways to resolve them through better conditions and security of employment and the safeguard of their acquired rights. It is only through such a comprehensive exercise that there can be constructive dialogue and a satisfactory outcome to the strike movement.

At a time when the country is about to determine the quantum of a minimum salary applicable in the country bearing in mind the basic existential needs of people to live with dignity, it would also be perhaps necessary to establish a related minimum hourly rate of remuneration for part time workers. In the United Kingdom, the minimum hourly wage rate reviewed every April is presently £7. 20. The average hourly labour costs of the EU-28 were Euros 25.40 in 2016. These provide benchmarks for the employment of part time employees.

 Double standards

Above all, there must not be a perception of double standards in the country when dealing with people living in conditions of economic precarity.

– How can the government justify its hard line towards the hunger strikers eking out a livelihood from their work when it is providing houses to squatters who have been illegally occupying scarce state lands for years and handsomely compensating others with millions of Rupees from public funds in the context of the Metro Express project?

– How can government brandish the law to brow beat the strikers against the backdrop of the handsome packages allocated from public funds to its cohort of advisors and the coterie of cronies?

– How does the tough stance taken by government towards women cleaners earning a pittance tally with the recent decision to advance the payment of the Negative Income Tax (NIT) to some 150,000 employees in full time employment under specific conditions from August 2018 to November 2017 at the cost of some Rs 975 million to the Public Exchequer?

As per the MRA directive on NIT, full time employment means employees working 5 days a week for at least 30 hours per week. Despite the pontifications of the government spokesman last week, part time employees such as the striking cleaners are specifically not eligible and will not benefit from NIT.

The people are fed up with such double standards. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Is it so difficult for a minister earning some Rs 330,750 per month to realize that a monthly salary of Rs 1500-2150 paid to contracted cleaners of schools, despite the conditions of their employment, should be anathema in modern Mauritius and that this should be set right forthwith? Not to do so is to trigger a potent backlash.

It now seems that good sense has finally prevailed as the government has issued a communiqué today (25 October 2017) advising that it has agreed to set up a committee to examine the representations made by the cleaners with a mandate to submit its recommendations by the 15 November 2017. This initiative was long overdue. The hunger strike has been called off after nine days, ending the long fight and distress of the cleaners. The country and the people’s ardent hope is that the recommendations meet the aspirations of the cleaners and bring back a well earned serenity to their lives.

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Sordid Ruckus in the National Assembly

The sordid ruckus in the National Assembly this week at the outset of its very first session, after three months of parliamentary vacation and its well choreographed aftermath epitomize the sorry state of our democracy. Local politicking immediately changed gear into rabid mode. Narrow political shenanigans of the worst vintage took over. Fairness and elementary rules of equity were unceremoniously scuttled. In an unprecedented development, the leader of the opposition was ‘named’ in Erskine May parlance and peremptorily suspended for two sessions of the National Assembly on a motion of the Prime Minister voted speedily by the government majority.

In a well orchestrated vaudeville so déjà vu, the 7.30 pm news was press-ganged to showcase the press conferences of the main political parties and the government in battle station, each providing their own special spin and partisan hype on the appalling turn of events in the National Assembly. In a scripted scenario, the government had significantly more than the last word.

Despite the spin, it was far from being a proud moment for our democracy. All the protagonists stand guilty. For how long more will the people stand for such senseless and futile politicking? For how much longer will the nation endure this endless farce? Is it not high time to end this patent nonsense and bring back true democracy in the country?

 

 

*  Published in print edition on 27 October 2017

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