A new era that was to shape the social and economic landscape began to dawn in Mauritius in 1938. The Industrial Associations Ordinance developed on the model of the South African Conciliation Act of 1937, promulgated by the Governor, Sir Bede Clifford, made it lawful for certain classes of workers to form associations, as trade unions were then called, for the purpose of regulating relations with employers and for a strike or lockout to take place after official conciliation had failed. That historic event generated a flurry of excitement in the island to the extent that according to the Colonial Annual Reports, Mauritius, 1946, there was a feverish rush for registration of ‘associations’ – over forty associations were registered in the first few months after the law was passed, – though with the exception of Emmanuel Anquetil, none of those trade unionists had the slightest knowledge of the organization and handling of trade union matters.
Governor Bede Clifford is regarded as the one having set on track trade unionism to fulfill the aspirations of the working classes. But one must bear in mind that Sir Bede, faced tough times, unlike past Governors who enjoyed a peaceful life in Mauritius. He came under intense pressure first from the Mauritius Labour party which began whipping up a mass movement never witnessed before for the introduction of reforms that included the establishment of trade union. Then, the Governor had to bear the brunt of the Colonial office in London for the failure all through of the colonial administration in the implementation of the conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) designed to improve working conditions with the application of new standards.
When the Secretary of state for the Colonies, Ormsby-Gore, received Curé’s petitions denouncing the deteriorating social climate in the island and the non-compliance by the local government of the ILO conventions, the Governor got a rap on the knuckles.
To the Colonial administration trying to play cool, the setting up of the Industrial Associations Ordinance was “the remedy proposed by the Commission of Enquiry into the troubles of 1937”. In fact, the Hooper Commission appointed to inquire into the disturbances that rocked the island endorsed most of the demands formulated by Dr Maurice Curé, leader of the Mauritius Labour party. The introduction of trade unionism that was key to social reforms appeared high on the agenda of the Labour party in 1936 and was milked thoroughly during the party’s island-wide meetings.
Curé’s demands were inspired by the ILO conventions to which Britain was a signatory but these were “scarcely applied in Mauritius”. The only announcement made in conformity with the conventions was the setting up of a Minimum Wage Ordinance in 1934, but which failed to take off. That failure was largely attributed to the fact that successive Governors in Mauritius could not marshal enough guts to stand up against those championing the status-quo and bowed in to the pressure of the tiny oligarchy controlling the Legislative Council. As an example, Governor Herbert Read promised in 1926 his support for the introduction of trade unionism with a “Trade Union Bill”. But even before the Bill made its way to the Council for debate, the Governor yielded to the pressure unleashed by the representatives of the sugar estates, which led to the Bill dying a natural death.
It was Curé who wrote to the Colonial office complaining about the local government’s failure in adhering to the ILO conventions. The Secretary of state for the Colonies sought explanations from the Governor who revealed much to the annoyance of officials at the Colonial office that no steps had ever been taken in Mauritius to conform to the several ILO conventions.
Sir Bede argued in his reply that the application of the conventions “should be viewed through a Mauritian rather than an international or academic atmosphere”. With regard to the setting up of trade unionism, the Governor added that “there are not, and cannot legally be, any industrial associations in Mauritius in the absence of special legislation”.
The Colonial office found the Governor’s reply “not very satisfactory” and “somewhat disquieting”.
According to the Colonial office, the main issue in Mauritius was implementation. As to Sir Bede Clifford’s statement that “there cannot legally be any industrial association in Mauritius”, a senior official, P.A. Rogers wrote on 28 January 1938, “it is a horrible admission to make,” and found the Governor’s explanatory statement “impossible to send” to the ILO’s Geneva office which had raised questions about the Mauritius case.
The Secretary of state expressed concern that there was no law in Mauritius for providing the incorporation of industrial organization. He was not satisfied that such a state of affairs continued and urged the Governor to give an “early consideration of the question and the possibility of introducing trade union legislation”.
Maurice Curé’s petitions though described in London as “annoying and disturbing” were seen “at least as partly responsible for the present concern of the Colonial government with the amelioration of labour conditions” in the island.
Nonetheless, Governor Bede Clifford could not turn a blind eye to the ground realities in the island. Workers’ patience was wearing thin as economic conditions kept worsening adding to frustrations that gave fear to the Colonial office.
Using the Hooper Commission as a face-saving move and after the rebuke administered by the Secretary of state, Sir Bede was left with no choice but to put into effect the Commission’s recommendations. Of these, the “Industrial Associations Ordinance (1938) was going to be a breakthrough that would go about shaping the future social life of the island.
Another major step was the creation of a Labour department, in replacement of the century old Protector of Immigrants department, primarily as a platform for resolving conflicts between employers and employees and regulating wages.
But, at the same time, the Labour department during Bede Clifford’s administration was like a propaganda agency churning out government’s future projects and explaining by adopting a “paternalistic” approach that it was a caring government that had the interest of workers at heart. That was a strategy meant to brainwash and divert workers away from those described as “political agitators” who, according to the Governor, were “largely responsible” for the unrest that had taken place.