History, it is said, has to be something more than just another event. That another event is applauded as a pivotal moment that turns the course of a nation’s destiny. When Dr Maurice Curé launched the Labour party on 23 February 1936, perhaps, he could hardly have imagined that the party he founded would survive for such a long length of time. His own tenure of the party leadership was short-lived, lasting six years only. He gave up because the Colonial government with the connivance of the oligarchy unleashed a campaign of harassment against him in a retaliatory ploy.
The advent of the Labour Party with radical tendencies in Colonial times was something that was least expected. Those were the days when British imperialism reigned supreme. Any riposte or anti-British demonstration was dealt with in the most brutal manner. In India, for example, the Sepoy Revolt was crushed with indiscriminate killings of civilians and mutineers. That revolt brought to an end the Mughal era. Jallianwala in Amritsar witnessed the “monstrous massacre” of thousands of Indians when they gathered to stage a protest march in 1919. The Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya was another instance of British high-handedness of suppressing demonstrations by killing. In the 1930s, India, a country much bigger in size than England, was still struggling to free itself from the yoke of British colonialism. The intransigence displayed by Sir Winston Churchill was eloquent. In a blunt response, he said he had “not become the king’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire”.
In tiny Mauritius, yet Dr Maurice Curé dared defy the British establishment. His first brush with politics in the 1920s showed an anti-Britain streak, a militant of the Retrocession movement and was therefore not a man to be trusted.
Putting his lucrative medical career at stake, he raised the banner of revolt by floating the Labour party which carried the ingredients of the much-dreaded communist ideology. Communism had by then become the craze of rising politicians in the colonies all over the world.
Though he came under the spell of Jean Jaurès, the French communist leader and Editor of the newspaper L’Humanité, Curé wanted the Labour party to be crafted on the British Labour Party’s style. At the launching of the party and later to the Hooper Commission, he said workers had no voice in the Legislative Council to champion their cause. “They are left in the lurch”, he said. That was why in his manifesto written with the help of B. Ohsan, a lawyer and party activist, he proposed the nomination of two representatives of the working class to the Legislative Council. His other demands were the establishment of a Labour Department, the introduction of trade unionism, revision of the Constitution and several social measures that included old-age pension. All these generated a flurry of excitement and hope of the dawn of a new era.
The Labour Party held throughout the island close to thirty public meetings in 1936 and seventy in 1937 to alert public opinion and mobilise workers of the exploitation they were subjected to. Curé pegged his campaigns on the necessity of introducing social reform. He stressed upon the adoption by the authorities of the conventions prescribed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) of which Britain was a signatory and which the Colonial administration in Mauritius ignored.
Though the Labour party was exerting considerable pressure by whipping up mass agitations, Governor Clifford remained inflexible. His main preoccupation, it seemed, was about how to get rid of an “agitator” and a “troublesome” party. Already tension was brewing but it soon reached boiling point, flaring up on sugar estates in 1937 and culminating in the shooting of workers at Flacq.
The Hooper Commission subsequently appointed to inquire into the disturbances tried to situate responsibility for the outbreak. It found nonetheless justifications in most of the claims made by the Labour party.
Three of the main proposals of the nascent Labour party were immediately endorsed by the Colonial administration. By way of appeasement, Sir Bede Clifford set himself to task by taking concrete action on the basis of the Commission’s recommendations.
The first step was the setting up of a Labour Department which ensured compliance with labour and minimum wages legislations. It was involved in negotiations and handling grievances and disputes. It was also used as a propaganda outlet to promote government’s activities and to show how much government cared for the well-being of workers, a move intended to counter the “agitation curéene”.
Then followed another major breakthrough. Described at that time as an “epoch-making event”, the introduction in 1938 of the Industrial Association Ordinance, in other words, the lawful existence of trade unionism, authorised the setting up of trade union organizations and gave workers – the first time in Mauritian history – the lawful right to strike after negotiations with employers had failed.
The introduction of trade unionism in Mauritius was a “milestone in colonial labour law”. Because at that point, historians Croucher and McIlroy wrote, “few colonial governments and none in the African colonial dependencies had legislated on the subject”. Trade unionism in Mauritius is a legacy bequeathed to successive generations by the founding fathers of the Labour party.
The Labour Party and trade unionism looked very much like twins, hard to dissociate, if at all. Curé expressed that sentiment in his address at the inauguration of the Plantation Workers’ House in 1963. He said “l’histoire du syndicalisme à Maurice se confond à tel point avec l’histoire du Parti Travailliste qu’en évoquant celle là, il ne m’est pas possible de ne pas faire une brève incursion dans celle-ci”.
Another milestone in the social history of Mauritius was the introduction of the old-age pension. The proposal first announced in the Labour party’s manifesto met with the approval of Governor Bede Clifford. The proposed pension scheme was to be opened to “all sections of the population”. A committee chaired by the Governor himself and in which sat the Procureur-Général, Charles Hooper and the Director of Labour, Edward Twining made recommendations in 1941 to the Colonial office where Major Orde-Browne, the Labour Adviser to the Secretary of state for colonies, Arthur Creech-Jones, pulled all his weight in bringing the project to a satisfactory conclusion. From the late 1940s, payment of old-age pension became a reality. Encrusted deep in the social security system of Mauritius since many decades, old-age pension had today become a decisive factor in general elections.
That was the Labour party of 1936. It forced basic welfare reforms through mass mobilisation and set the foundation of the welfare state in Mauritius.