LABOUR DAY was celebrated for the first time in Mauritius on 1st May 1938, therefore this year marks the 79th anniversary of its annual commemoration in our country. Furthermore, Labour Day was also celebrated for the first time as an official public holiday on 1st May 1950, which was an outcome of the relentless struggle of the Mauritian workers between 1936 and 1948.
It is almost eight decades since of the passage of the Labour Ordinance of 1938 and the replacement of the Immigration Department from the Indenture Era (located at the present Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site) with the Labour Department. During the late 1930s and 1940s, these were some of the landmark events that have shaped the lives of Mauritian workers and had a major impact on the island’s early labour movement.
The Labour Ordinance of 1938
In November 1938, barely two months after the famous Port Louis Dockers’ Strike, the Council of Government enacted a new labour ordinance to replace the Labour Law of 1922 which was an anachronistic relic from the indenture era. Some of the innovations of this progressive new labour law were:
The inclusion of all Mauritian labourers within its scope
Action to be taken by the Director of Labour for the protection of all labourers
The establishment of an eight-hour work day
The regulation of overtime work and pay for such work
All wages to be paid in cash unless otherwise agreed between the employer(s) and employee(s) with the sanction of the Labour Department
Prohibition of any deduction by an employer from a labourer’s wage by way of fine, or for bad and negligent work
 The power of the governor to prescribe the dimension of any measure used in determining the size of a task
Payment of maternity allowances to women who worked and resided on estates
Establishment of crèches on estates in certain circumstances
(10) The provision of allotment for labourers living on estates
(11) The keeping of work and wage records of all labourers by employers, job  contractors, and sirdars
(12) Submission of returns of wages
(13) Penalties for failure on the part of sirdars or job-contractors to credit labourers for the correct amount of work done by them
During the course of the same year, one of the editorials of Arya Vir, a publication of the Arya Samaj, called it “a charter of welfare” which was meant to help the Mauritian labourers. The editor-in-chief of that colonial newspaper, Sri Krishna, was a close collaborator of Dr. Maurice Curé and a member of the Labour Party.
The claim of Arya Vir was not an exaggeration because this new labour law extended the protection of the Labour Department to all classes of labourers, made no provision for written contracts of service and did not include any penal sanctions against labourers for breach of agreement.
Even more revolutionary was the fact that, unlike what had been practiced for almost a century, no fine could be exacted by the employer for negligence of work by a labourer. Therefore, oppressive labour measures which had been commonly used by Mauritian employers for many decades against their employees were no longer sanctioned by Labour Ordinance of 1938.
The Labour Department
During the last week of September 1938, as the members of the Council of Government began to debate the new labour bill, Governor Bede Clifford reminded them that it would also provide a code for the operation of the new Labour Department.  During the first half of 1939, Lionel Collet, the last Protector of Immigrants and Poor Law Commissioner, helped Oswell, the Director of Labour, to set up the fledgling Labour Department until the appointment of three senior officers.
In February 1939, E.F.Twining arrived in Mauritius to take up his position as Deputy Director of Labour and five months later, R.C.Wilkinson arrived in the colony and became the Assistant Director of Labour. In October of the same year, after having completed his mission in creating a strong Labour Department, Oswell left the colony and Twining became the second Director of Labour.
In December 1939, in his first annual report, Twining wrote, with a great deal of satisfaction:
“The year 1939 saw the completion of the establishment of the Labour Department. The former title of Protector of Immigrants and Poor Law Commissioner, by which the Head of Labour has been known was changed to that of Director of Labour”.
In mid-November of that same year, with the retirement of Lionel Collet, the Council of Government enacted Ordinance No.47 in order “to alter the title of Protector of Immigrants and Poor Law Commissioner into that of Director of Labour.”  
During the opening session of the Council of Government on 2nd April 1940, Governor Bede Clifford explained that the newly established Labour Department had in effect replaced the former Immigration and Poor Law Department.  It was evident that the passage of Ordinance No.47 of November 1939 had swept away the last vestige of the indenture system which had existed for almost one century in Mauritius.    
The Introduction of Minimum Wage
Today, minimum wage is still a relevant issue which will be implemented tentatively by the Government of Mauritius in January 2018. Almost eight decades ago, in 1939, the local British administration, based upon the recommendation of the Minimum Wage Advisory Board which was convened by Twining of the Labour Department, fixed a new minimum wage. On 19th August of the same year, Governor Bede Clifford, by virtue of the powers vested in him under the Minimum Wages Ordinance of 1934, established a minimum rate of wages payable to agricultural workers employed on sugar estates in the Moka district.
This colonial measure took effect nine days later and was actively enforced by the Labour Department. In general, this was an experimental measure which was aimed at seeing what would be the effects of introducing a minimum wage policy among the rural agricultural labourers of a particular district in Mauritius. On 31st August 1941, more than two years later, the minimum wage award of 1939 for the Moka district was extended to the entire island by the governor and took effect the following day.
Several months earlier, in January 1941, Lord Moyne, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, informed Governor Bede Clifford that Major G. St.J. Orde Browne, a labour adviser at the Colonial Office, was chosen to go to Mauritius to study all aspects related to the colony’s labour conditions. His mission also included advising the British governor and Twining, the Director of the Labour Department, on how best to deal with labour issues.
Today, it is our duty to honour the Mauritian workers of the 1930s and 1940s as the builders of modern Mauritius and helped pave the way for independence.