Touria Prayag's Blog

Weekly editorial (August 23, 2012)

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on August 23, 2012

Why charity does not begin at home

 

This week, the Mauritius Commercial Bank, in its MCB Focus, has suggested that Mauritius, among other things, support “the case in regional forums for the design and implementation of a standardised ‘African passport’ which would promote free mobility of people as well as facilitate intra-regional trade and investment”.

 

Indeed, we often talk about Mauritius as an investment route to Africa or as a platform for structuring investment into Africa. And there is no denying the fact that Mauritius has, over the years, established a sound reputation in the Financial Services Sector and become the jurisdiction of choice for channelling investment into Africa. Why is it then that we offer this generosity to other countries by acting as a gateway but do not extend the charity to ourselves by directly investing in Africa?

Admittedly, some investment has gone into a few African countries in economic activities like sugar and tourism, but it has so far been sporadic, circumstantial, ad hoc and unstructured. The bulk of our investment has remained local, serving the European and – to a lesser degree – the US markets. And, for as long as Europe was buying our sugar under guaranteed quotas and the US were importing our textile items tariff-free, we contentedly sat and watched other countries walk past us into the African continent. We did not care to look beyond the gates we have ourselves opened for others.

The reasons are simple: our historical baggage has saddled us with stubborn misconceptions and prejudices about Africa. Most of our compatriots think of Africa as a famine-plagued, war-torn backward continent. Visiting many African countries can be a very humbling experience for those who are willing to undertake it. An experience which is more often than not far removed from the image conjured from our pre-conceived ideas. Unfortunately, most of us owe the little we know about our neighbours to what Western media choose to show us. And these media have been consistent in the images they have been conveying to us, whether innocently or by design. Good news in Africa rarely makes the headlines. Bad news about Africa is sensationally splashed all over the headlines. Ghana’s stable and strong democracy and the recent smooth transition of power there, as just one such example, do not make the sexy news that smug voyeuristic viewers crave for. Famine, disease, pandemics and war make for readily consumable and satisfying news and the media show no restraint in serving them to their consumers. The change in Rwanda from a genocide-scarred country to a safe, organised and civilized haven today does not make good headlines. Continually serving reminiscences of the genocide does. And we sit, watch and swallow.

African peoples have been scarred, decultured and dehumanized by colonisation. The images the Western media have been conveying have comforted the prejudices we already have and increased our ignorance. This ignorance today has a cost. We missed the train which China and South Africa jumped on in the nick of time, while we stood as bystanders waving them goodbye and good luck.

Can we catch a later train? Probably, but that would require exorcising our deeply ingrained prejudices, exacerbated by our insularity and navel-worship. A lofty task if you ask me. Above all, we would first and foremost need to come to terms with, and respect, our own domestic diversity and overcome our prejudices and stereotyping of each other. We have a long road to travel still.

Until then, let us facilitate the route for those who have fewer prejudices than us.

Weekly editorial (August 16, 2012)

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on August 19, 2012

When absurdity becomes a habit

You know that a country is not going anywhere when you have lobbies digging their heels in against any progress and pushing for the status quo. This week has seen the meeting between the adviser to the Prime Minister’s Office on Road Safety and representatives of trade unions of the transport sector. Though the outcome of the meeting is not very clear for the time being, no one will be surprised if the demerit point system, which the government has been trying to introduce to put some order in our horrendous traffic conditions and an end to the carnage on our roads, finds its way to the bottom of the drawers. 

There is no doubt that lobbies, the world over, are very powerful. Each year, lobbing groups spend astronomical sums of money trying to buy influence. And we are not left out of the fiesta. Corporates in Mauritius hardly hide the fact that they pour money into efforts to shape laws and regulations to fit their interests. However, if in the business arena, lobbying is associated with powerful interests, it gets murkier when lobbies are orchestrated by “ordinary citizens”, particularly those on the lower rungs of the social ladder. The result is no different, though. If big business buys influence through lining the pockets of various political parties, ordinary citizens exert influence through bartering their votes. And the nation is no better off for it as they stand in the way of progress in a more noxious way than any big business can.

More than the lobbies, it is the arguments presented to defend them which are rather bemusing. The transport sector, for example, has no objection to everyone being penalised for bad driving except that those who make a living out of driving should be absolved. They could not be expected to respect the Highway Code in the same way as other road users, they said, without blinking, as they are on the road more often! And, the authorities should have consulted them first before deciding to apply the law indiscriminately. 

If you find the above arguments incongruous, if not altogether downright absurd, there is more: the left third carriageway built with big money on the motorway leading to the Phoenix roundabout is closed to motorists during peak hours. A perfect example of how a dozen votes are bartered against the comfort of tens of thousands of other motorists using that nexus every day. The argument:  the residents of Petit Camp village (a few dozen families) refuse to drive one hundred metres to the next roundabout and back if they want to head north. So the rest of the population is penalised! If we extended the same norms of security to all citizens of the country, we would have to close down all the roads!

In case you thought that the lobbies were restricted to road matters, take heart, they are not. You will recall that a couple of years ago, school canteen owners grouped under a union and threatened to go on hunger strike. The reason? The government was trying to introduce laws to protect school kids from buying unhealthy and unhygienic food. The argument put forward almost boiled down to “how would the canteens make a profit otherwise?”

Well, in countries where political patronage and clientelism are par for the course, you can’t blame lobbies for putting forward inane arguments, can you? 

Weekly editorial (August 9, 2012)

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on August 10, 2012

Sweet and sour

The bitter struggle between the Joint Negotiating Panel (JNP) and the Mauritius Sugar Producers’
Association
(MSPA) which has marred the atmosphere of the sugar industry these last couple of weeks is most
unfortunate at a time when the harvest of sugar has just started. The dangers of this are obvious. Popular
fury is seldom a good starting point for negotiation. And, as the scandal rages in the country, the industry’s
credibility is likely to be shot. The fi rst attempt of the MSPA to ride out the storm by appealing to the
Employment
Relations Tribunal (ERT) for an injunction has not exactly had the success intended. The workers
have, it would seem, decided to fi ght until the last ditch. It is now diffi cult to see how an orderly exit out of
the confl ict is possible, the problem being the word “orderly.”
We have always stood for the respect of the law and institutions. We are not going to change our stance
to please anyone. The ERT has issued an interim injunction while mulling the issue. If the workers decide to
doggedly go ahead with the strike anyway, much as we would like to, we cannot endorse it. Nothing good
comes out of lack of respect for the rule of law and institutions.
We are also sensitive to the arguments that the sugar industry has undergone a complete overhaul and
that some companies have moved into ethanol production, power generation or that many have moved
to other countries while some have remained in sugar and that they therefore have different budgets. We
are also prepared to entertain the argument that because the activities of the MSPA members are now very
varied, they have different needs and a different fi nancial capacity. These may or may not be the reasons
why the MSPA is rejecting the idea of collective bargaining at the national level and recommending
negotiation
with companies individually. We are still prepared to put our cynicism aside and accept that there is
no bad faith and that the intention is not to weaken the bargaining power of the workers but rather to take
into account the specifi cities and particular needs of the companies involved as it is the case in other
sectors
like tourism and textile.
Here is where we have a problem. First, the sugar sector cannot be compared to the textile or tourism
sectors.
The reason is simple: although textiles and tourism have benefi ted from government grants, that’s
small change compared to the money pumped in by the European Union to be used to restructure and
modernize the sugar cane industry. And neither sector has collectively signed juicy contracts with the
government
which are still generating controversy, like the Private Power Producers. Secondly, the MSPA has
not been very consistent in its line of argument. Either it is mandated to represent the sugar producers or it
is not, in which case it should be dissolved. It cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. It cannot
embrace centralization when it comes to grants and contracts and decentralize as soon as there is industrial
talk. This is an argument it is unlikely to win in the court of public opinion even if it wins on legal grounds.
And the former is more important. So, let’s hope common sense prevails, the strike is called off and the JNP
and the MSPA sit together to find common grounds. Otherwise, we are heading for a lose-lose situation.

Interview of Nita Deerpalsing: “The sugar barons are showing bad faith”

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on August 10, 2012

Although reticent about her party’s newest member, Pratibhah Bholah and the latter’s reasons for joining the Labour Party, Nita Deerpalsing weighs in on the ongoing row between the Mauritius Sugar Producers’ Authority (MSPA) and workers in the cane industry.


Let me begin by congratulating you.

 

What for?

 

You have a new turncoat strengthening the ranks of your party.

 

Well, I think it’s good for the Labour party that we have increased the numbers and that’s about it.

 

That’s all you are interested in? The numbers game? What about ideology and principles?

 

That’s precisely what it’s all about. Anybody with a little political sense knows that the Labour Party was born in 1939 and that it was born not in power but in opposition to the mentality of oppression. Those are our roots and today we have different battles. We have the ideology in place but to put it into practice we need a mandate for power. 

 

But to stay in power, how high is the price you are prepared to pay?

 

We are already in power and we have a comfortable majority.

 

In that case, why are you poaching more people?

 

We are not poaching anyone. Mrs. Bholah had a decision to take and she took it.  I regret that she didn’t take it a year ago but now she has. She must have realised that this is where the real work for the country is being done. So much the better for her.

 

But aren’t you disturbed by the reasons she put forward for joining the Labour Party? In case you have forgotten, I will sum them up for you: she said that it was becoming hard for her in the opposition as there was oppression and punitive transfers of her supporters and that’s why she decided to join the Labour Party. Doesn’t that disturb you?

 

I would not like to comment on what she said. All I would like to say is that the Labour Party has not been oppressing anyone in any constituency. The minister for public infrastructure has given ample explanations for some of things mentioned. And that’s it. I wouldn’t want to comment on it any further. We will continue our actions for the country.

 

And anybody who wants a post of minister or PPS is welcome. The doors are open and don’t worry about ideology. Is that the message you are sending to the youth?

 

Not at all. I just told you where the Labour Party started in this country and that it has had a constant line of action, through different times and world contexts. If you look at the Labour Party from 1936 to today, there is a definite continuity and the message is clear. This is the party you need to be in for working for the country and for progressive politics. If I have to sum it up, what has underpinned the philosophy of the Labour Party is progressive politics. This is what it has done, is doing and will continue to do. This is why people are coming towards the Labour Party, to be a part of that movement.

 

You’ve become a real politician. But you’ve been vociferous about the row between the MSPA and the Joint Negotiating Panel (JNP). You’ve been strong in condemning the MSPA. Does that mean you feel that the sugar workers are right in what they are doing?

 

You know there are two things. One is the institutions and the procedures and the other is the philosophy. We in the Labour Party cannot but support the workers of the sugar industry. The roots of the Labour Party started from the oppression of the sugar oligarchy. That still holds. Today we no longer have 20,000 or 30,000 workers in the industry but simply about 5,000.  But I guess what people forget is that we are still producing almost the same amount of sugar – 500,000 tonnes which we were producing with 30,000 people!

 

Five thousand workers plus mechanization.

 

Yes, of course. But the point is what are these people asking for? You have to understand their demands. In 2010, there was a collective agreement signed by the MSPA and the JNP – the unions – and that was implemented by the ministry of labour.

But according to the MSPA, that is the agreement that the workers are not sticking to. They are coming up with new demands.

 

That is not true. (She raises her voice) That is absolutely not true and that is where there is bad faith. The agreement which was signed in 2010 – I need to emphasise this here – was a collective agreement that the MSPA was a party to. One of the things that the MSPA agreed upon was 21 issues such as working gloves for workers etc. – we’re talking about these kinds of things – that would be referred to the National Remuneration Board (NRB). In front of the minister, it was all agreed upon; they were physically present when they agreed that these things be referred to the NRB. They also agreed that from then onwards, the discussions would be at central level, not with 20 other establishments. Now, as soon as the hearings began, somehow a new chairperson came in.

 

What’s wrong with that?

 

Nothing, except that the new chairperson decides somehow that the hearings that had taken place before would be thrown into the dustbin and that they would start anew. That in itself, I find a little bit weird. But anyway, the biggest problem is that at some point in time, when the hearings started again, the MSPA, which had agreed that these 21 issues be referred to the NRB, decided to put a judicial review in the Supreme Court against the decision of the minister of labour to refer these issues to the NRB. If that isn’t bad faith on their behalf, then I don’t know what it is.

 

Are you saying that they are not allowed to appeal?

 

No! It is not an appeal! You agree in front of the minister that these issues be referred to the NRB, and a year later, you decide to put a judicial review. You’re contesting the decision of the state. You should not have agreed then! It is ridiculous and procedurally not right. It gives me as it gives the workers an idea of what kind of methods are being used. These people can pay the most expensive lawyers and that is what they’re doing!

 

The main point of contention, it seems, is the fact that the MSPA is no longer mandated to negotiate on behalf of its members as these now have completely different needs, interests and turnover.

 

That is not the reason! When the MSPA says they cannot discuss with the workers as one group because they represent 20 companies, it is a situation of divide and rule. These workers have no bargaining power. The MSPA is saying they cannot bargain collectively and they should be separated into 20 groups.

 

But they work for different companies, some of which have converted into ethanol production, some have relocated, some are still into sugar…They cannot be counted as one entity any more, can they?

 

When the European Union was cutting down the price of sugar and giving accompanying measures – millions of euros which the country could have used for other things – the MSPA then hired a consultant that they paid big money for and submitted their views to government as one entity. They then convinced it to transform the sugar industry into a cane industry.

 

We wouldn’t have survived otherwise…

 

Yes, but they were one then! The most important thing is that the whole consultant report in transforming the sugar industry into a cane industry rested on one single concept, which was centralisation. That was the mantra of the multi-adaptation strategy. They wanted to centralise everywhere instead of having so many milling companies even if it was to the detriment of the small planters. The report said it would be more efficient as an industry. They wanted to centralise in every way except for workers’ relations – which they wanted to decentralise. That does not hold ground and it shows bad faith.

 

Did the Employment Rights Tribunal (ERT) also show bad faith when it issued an injunction for the workers to stop the strike action?

 

I am a little perturbed by what the ERT has done, to be honest.

 

You are questioning the justice system of this country, aren’t you?

 

I am questioning the fairness of the process.

 

By siding with workers who are going on an illegal strike, aren’t you encouraging lawlessness?

 

Just look at the law. The workers are totally within their right to go on strike. It’s totally legal. If it was illegal, the MSPA would not have had to put an injunction. Therefore, they went and applied for an injunction at the ERT.

 

Which, as an independent institution, decided that the strike was illegal.

 

This is no longer a legal issue. It is a political one.

 

But an independent tribunal has decided a strike would be illegal…

 

We are talking about justice here, not about the law. Apartheid was legal in South Africa until recently. Does that make it fair? What would have happened if Nelson Mandela has sat and accepted injustice just because it was entrenched in the system?  The ERT looks at the application of the most powerful of the country and decides to give an injunction. My question is: how can it be fair to give an injunction when you have listened to only one side? You don’t need to be a lawyer to see that it is unfair. Then the ERT refers the case to the DPP and to the police commissioner?! Come on!

 

Unfortunately that is the law in a country where there is the rule of law. And, if 20 companies decide that they are different entities, you can’t force them to be one, can you?

 

I’m sorry, I don’t buy that. There is an injustice in the whole procedure. If the 20 companies you are talking about wanted to be considered different entities, they should have made that argument when they were seeking help from the European Union. What they are doing is double-faced. When it suits them, they are one. When it doesn’t, they suddenly become different companies. Don’t force this on me. All we are asking them is to be fair to their employees. They cannot get away with injustice for long.

 

 

One last question, the population is actually bemused and confused about what is going on in the political scene. One day you agree with the MMM and the next day you don’t agree with them. What exactly is going on?

 

I’m sorry? We never said that one day we agreed and the other day we didn’t agree. I think that you got the wrong side of the equation. All the agreeing and not agreeing happened between the MMM and the MSM. We have nothing to do with it.

 

But there was koz kozé, surely, and the prime minister came out openly and said “we agree on most issues.”

 

(Interrupts). No, no, no. It was Paul Bérenger who said that, not the prime minister. I have never heard him say that we agreed on 99 %. He has always said that we agree on something, but that there are still other things that we don’t agree on. That’s it! What you are referring to is what is happening between the two parties of the opposition. One day on, one day off, one day re-on! Everybody in Mauritius has seen what has happened during the last few weeks. I think that there is a genuine desire to modernise the electoral system on both sides, and here I am talking about the MMM and the Labour Party.

 

Where does the MSM fit in?

 

(Chuckles) The MSM does even come into my equation. There is a genuine desire from the Labour Party and the MMM to modernise the electoral system. But these things are very complicated in every country of the world. The devil is in the details!

 

 

 

Out of the cultural melting pot (global-briefing.org July 2012)

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on August 1, 2012

This article was published in Global Briefing

Out of the cultural melting pot

Diverse cultures from five continents are represented in these remote and small islands, and their interplay creates unique effects.

A ‘rainbow nation’ is how Mauritians like to think of themselves – and the medley of races, religions and ethnic groups is truly striking. The linguistic diversity adds anoth­er dimension to an already complex culture. While the unwary foreigner may find it hard to understand the intricacies of this culture, the Mauritian learns instinctively how to cope. That is part of his or her identity.

Between the moment a Mauritian baby is born until that baby is placed in its hospital cot, it has had time to cross the five conti­nents. When she (let’s assume she is girl) opens her eyes, and sees the nurses, the doctors and the patients, the newborn has a foretaste of how diverse the world’s (and Mauritius’s) population is. As she learns to utter her first words, relationship titles come spontaneously. She knows who to call Mon­sieur (‘Sir’ in French), Bhayya (‘Big broth­er’ in Hindi), Chacha (‘Uncle’ in Hindi) or ‘Uncle’. She knows who she would offend with the name Tantine (‘Aunt’ in Creole) and who would accept it endearingly.

She intuitively learns what language to speak to whom. To some she will use Cre­ole, to some French and to some Hindi or English. By the time she begins to socialise, she has mastered the art of greeting – which hands to shake, which cheeks to kiss and what body language to use from a distance. When she starts entertaining guests, she has no problem dealing with religious dietary restrictions. And best of all, she knows which colleague has a good kalia (a Mau­ritian dish) recipe and which one will show her how to make a mean ti-puri (a Mauri­tian type of bread) or a sumptuous mee foon (a Chinese dish made of eggs and prawns).

This is a lot of knowledge, a lot of culture and a tremendous start in life. It is a leg up over so many children who are not fortunate enough to have been born in such diversity.

At the same time, she will also grow up in relative insularity, unthreatened by any­one. Having no foes from outside, she can become highly competitive with her peers. Equally her sense of self-preservation can prevent her from opening up to others. An­other temptation in Mauritius is to be more interested in making a show of religion than in grasping the principles behind it, and the practice of religion is likely to be centred on rituals rather than the essence of it.

A Mauritian’s sense of family values is strong but so is her sense of belonging to her community. She sees herself first as a member of a community and then as a Mauritian. The fact that discrimination can outweigh tolerance of others may indeed be considered a shortcoming, and yet the level of tolerance achieved here is often higher than many countries have managed.

Given the multidimensionality of the identity matrix, what makes the Mauritian factor so unique is the way a Mauritian juggles her identities without a hitch, with­out any contradiction. She does not fit one mould. She belongs to her community first, but that does not decrease her love for and loyalty to her country or the pride she feels in belonging to it. Don’t ask her to choose. She is happy the way things are. The Mau­ritian way.

Touria Prayag in Global Briefing