Foreign workers in Mauritius face torrid time

Fifteen years after they first came to Mauritius, ”guest workers” from China, India and Bangladesh still face resistance to their efforts to improve the difficult conditions under which they live and work under.

About 30 000 foreign workers, more than half of them women, are working in Mauritius. During the country’s period of full employment in the 1990s, the government agreed that textile and clothing employers could recruit foreign workers to address labour shortages.

These workers enjoy little legal protection under Mauritian law, and those who have protested their working and living conditions have been summarily deported. Chinese workers are forced into overtime work because of an agreement with the Chinese government that their basic salaries be sent home in full. Thus the overtime work is their only means to money.

The presence of foreign workers has caused unhappiness among Mauritian locals, as 50 000 — or 10% — of workers are unemployed. Foreign workers have moved into other sectors, such as seafood production, transport, bakeries and restaurants.

Poor living and working conditions have forced foreign workers to take to the streets, leading to clashes with the police. Their daily working hours stretch from 8.30am until 11pm, with only two breaks of half-an-hour each in between. Back at their living quarters, they have to queue to wash.

Reeaz Chuttoo, a trade unionist from the Federation of Progressive Unions (FPU), describes foreign workers’ dormitories as so cramped that they keep their clothes under the bed or hanging from the walls.

”Employers prefer to hire foreign workers because they are vulnerable as far as their rights and demands are concerned,” Chuttoo underlines. Due to pressure from the private sector, the government has not put a legal framework in place to protect foreign workers.

Chinese and Indian workers who organise against their employers have been deported from the island state. The so-called ring leaders have been targeted in particular, causing foreign workers to become cautious about publicly claiming their rights.

Since March 2005, the Chinese embassy has stopped giving shelter to its nationals who take part in demonstrations. The Indian embassy has also ceased intervening on behalf of Indian workers when they have problems with their employers.

Chinese workers in the clothing and textile sector are offered a three-year contract to earn the industry rate of $100 a month. This full amount has to be sent home, as per the agreement with the Chinese government. The workers receive a food allowance of $40.

The system determines that they may only keep money earned from overtime work. In order to sustain themselves, Chinese workers have no choice but to work overtime. Their extended time at work enables them to receive bonuses for efficiency and attendance. Therefore, they receive an average of $200 per month, including their basic salary.

If their conduct is satisfactory their contracts are renewed for another year, again without the right to challenge their working conditions.

Workers from India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh also receive the basic monthly salary of $100, plus a food allowance of $20. Employers pay their accommodation, electricity and water bills, as well as air tickets.

Indian workers told IPS that they do not enjoy good living and working conditions in Mauritius. ”We have come here because we are poor and we have too many mouths to feed back home,” explains Kunal Gosawala, who works in a beachwear factory.

His friend, Dilip Motiwala, adds that ”We did not know how it would be here. We paid lots of money to an agent in India to come here. We can’t go back now; we have to work.”

According to an official at the Labour and Industrial Relations Ministry, there is a special migrant-workers unit that scrutinises all contracts of employment and carries out inspections at workplaces to ensure that contracts are complied with.

The unit refers foreign workers’ complaints about accommodation and sanitation to the appropriate authorities for action.

The official also points out that foreign workers receive social-welfare support from a government-financed labour welfare fund, free transport for outings and may enjoy the cultural and leisure programme presented on Migrants’ Day.

Mauritian workers criticise foreign workers for accepting low wages. ”This is why our employers do not increase our pay. Without the foreigners, they would have had to pay more to locals to keep the machines running,” says Goolam Feerbux, a former textile machinist.

At government level, Labour and Industrial Relations Minister Vasant Bunwaree told Parliament in early November that Mauritius needs foreign workers as Mauritians do not possess the required skills to do certain jobs.

He pointed out that the government ”agreed to the demands of enterprises under the conditions that they will train one Mauritian for every foreign worker hired. But they have not kept their promise.”

Bunwaree warned that no more demands for hiring of foreign workers would be entertained if the enterprises did not hire and train local people.

In light of an expected boom due to new tourism projects, the construction industry wants to hire more foreign workers. This drive is meeting with strong resistance from the FPU. Its members have staged several demonstrations in front of Parliament and have addressed a letter of protest to the government.

Foreigners’ working conditions in the construction industry are atrocious. They work long shifts, and are not issued with protective gear in some cases. Some foreign construction workers wear tennis shoes instead of steel-toe shoes, Chuttoo says.

However, one textile enterprise — the Compagnie Mauricienne de Textile — has improved the living conditions of its 2 500 guests workers in its compound, supplying them with spacious dormitories, kitchens, TV rooms and a room for the sick.

The director, François Woo, regards it as ”a human investment. Foreign labour is a problem everywhere, not only in Mauritius. The workers are accommodated in small compartments and it turns out bad. We did not have the money to invest in such facilities. We have done it now in order to motivate the workers.” — IPS

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