Mauritius: Foreign workers push rights

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 they live and work under.

Some 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. The presence of foreign workers has caused unhappiness among Mauritian locals, as 50,000 — or 10 per cent — of workers are unemployed.

Foreign workers have moved into other sectors, such as seafood production, transport, bakeries and restaurants. Their daily working hours stretch from 08.30 until 23.00, 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.

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 an 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 said that they do not enjoy good living and working conditions in Mauritius.

In the construction industry, foreigners’ working conditions 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 guest 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