DANISHA SORNUM

On 23rd February 1936, Mauritius saw the creation of its first political party that would rally the disenfranchised mass on the island. As the Labour Party hits its 85th year of existence, it is befitting to  unearth some of the landmark laws, policies, projects and initiatives of the Labour Party, that have altered the Mauritian landscape.

The Labour Party was founded by stalwarts of different ethnicities, faiths and religions at a time when the fight for human dignity was what really mattered.  Mirroring the words of Dr. Maurice Curé on 20th February 1936, who said, “J’ai tracé la voie du peuple”, the Labour Party has carved the destiny of this country and its people over the years. The fight for minimum wages for labourers, trade unionism, and welfare regulations were germinated by the Labour Party in its very early days. The 1943 industrial unrest that claimed the lives of Anjalay Coopen and others set the path for the creation of the welfare state. The mass political education that was started by the Labour Party culminated in universal suffrage in 1959. The right to vote irrespective of gender, property and education was extended to each and every citizen above 21 years old, braving the unjustified fear of Hindu hegemony fuelled by Jules Koenig and Noël Marrier D’Unienville (NMU) of Le Cernéen. The campaign for independence led by SSR met with enormous resistance, but the battle continued relentlessly until 1968.

Post-independence, the Labour Government resisted pressures from the Bretton Woods Sisters to cut public expenditure and curb social welfare assistance. Amidst all the criticisms, the Labour Government had the courage to adopt bold policies that focused on striking a balance between expanding the economy and promoting redistributive justice, through universal pension that was further buttressed by a mandatory contributory tier in 1978, as well as free access to healthcare and education.

Inclusive development across the country bears the imprint of the Labour Party. Under successive Labour Governments, massive investments were made in public infrastructure. Thousands of kilometres of roads, both classified and unclassified, as well as small routes, were erected, propelling  industrialization and development in key sectors such as tourism, and real estate.

The Labour Party also understood that for growth to be truly inclusive, women have to be empowered on all fronts. Under the Labour Government, numerous projects to promote networking, leadership, gender mainstreaming, and gender budgeting, amongst others, were implemented so women’s voice is heard at the decision-making table. Gender sensitive policies such as the Family Pension Scheme were set up, to enable widows and widowers alike to benefit from pension upon death of spouse.  In 1997, the Protection from Domestic Violence Act was passed, impacting till date the lives of thousands of women victims of domestic violence. It is not a perfect law, but it greatly helped to change mindsets at a time when domestic violence was a taboo across the different layers of society.

In 2009, the Truth and Justice Commission was set up, followed by the Equal Opportunities Commission in 2012, opening a new era for coming to terms with our colonial past, fighting against discrimination and paving the way for a society built on the premises of meritocracy.  Again, neither the law, nor the Commissions was a panacea for all the ills that had been gnawing our society for centuries; the wounds of colonization could not be healed overnight; patterns of discrimination embedded in our cultural practices and deeply institutionalized systemic discrimination were not overhauled overnight. However, those institutions, the laws and policies were an eye-opener and created space for change in the system. The voice of those who lost their lands in colonial and post-colonial times echoed after years of silence; women had an avenue for redress in cases of harassment and discrimination at work; persons with handicap were empowered to push beyond barriers.

Despite all the challenges and criticisms, successive Labour Governments stood guided by the fundamental principle of equity in their policy-making. Maurice Ile Durable, a societal project that  seemed visibly ahead of its times back in 2008, aimed to transform the environmental, social and economic landscape of the country, solidly rooting inclusive growth at the core of government agenda.  Several initiatives were launched under MID, including the distribution of solar water heaters to more than 58,000 households as at 2013, and subsidies were given to small planters for composting. However, MID was not only about the environment and energy, but also about education, employment and equity; it was about promoting sustainable economic growth for this generation, and for future generations; it was about the creation of green jobs; and the equitable sharing of wealth amongst the citizens of this country.

The Labour Party has survived the numerous crises that came its way – the 1982 crisis, the personal attacks against its leaders, the criticisms against its policies.  Much of what has been constructed over decades has been undone by the Lepep Government over the last six years- MID and the Ministry of Social Integration were dismantled; institutions have been pushed into dysfunctionality; projects and laws were shelved, including the Consumer Protection Bill, the Blue Economy and the Green Economy blueprints; the economy is in tatters with no prospect for the emergence of new sectors of production.

The Labour Party was created in 1936. The year 2021 marks not only the 85th anniversary of the Labour Party but also the 36th death anniversary of SSR who passed away in December 1985 at the age of 85. Born in struggle and having known at least six leaders, the Labour Party has been resilient in the hardest of times, and is bound to re-invent itself not only to repair damage done, but also to cater for emerging needs as we cope with the new realities of the Covid era.