May 1 is celebrated throughout the world as Labour Day, often called May Day (not to be confused with “Mayday” which is an international distress signal code in radio communication derived from the French “m’aider” meaning “help me”). Labour day finds its origin in the Industrial Revolution that took place in Britain at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th.
At that time there was a fundamental transformation from manual to mechanized labour, which transgressed the socio-cultural barriers. Workers became exposed to poor conditions and irregular hours of work, extending between 10 to 16 hours in some cases. The concept of the 8-hour work emerged in the struggle for workers’ emancipation; and it spread gradually throughout the other parts of the world.
In Mauritius Labour Day was celebrated for the first time in 1938 under the initiative of Dr. Maurice Curé, an eminent leader of the labour movement and founder of the Labour Party. But over the years, this “day”, which is ever since a public holiday, is monopolized by politicians, or rather the workers themselves seem to have “handed over” this day to the political parties. It’s the workers that swell the crowd at all political meetings.
Workers’ organizations can hardly mobilize their rank and file as did Dr Curé who at that time happened to rally more than 20,000 people at Champ de Mars without the facilities available today. That was a time when the world of work was not adequately regulated. Workers had indeed to struggle for the betterment of their economic and social conditions. Today with the entire legal framework and labour relations bodies, workers’ claims do not meet with the same hurdles as 80 years ago. That may explain why union rallies on Labour day do not attract as many partisans any more although no less than 350 unions with more than 100,000 members are registered as per figures available from returns of December 2014 at the Registry of Associations. Instead they complacently organize small scale talks and conferences around a particular theme each year to mark the day.
So it’s an occasion for political parties (government and opposition alike) to showcase their strength and popularity by holding mass meetings in the main townships of the island practically every year. This year the ruling party has convened its constituents at the Vacoas market place. The opposition parties with dispersed strength will deviate from the usual traditions of open public gatherings. The Labour Party will meet at Mohit Hall in St Pierre, the MMM at Plaza, Rose Hill, while the PMSD will be at the Octave Wiehe Auditorium at Reduit.
Mouvement Premier-Mai, perceived as an emerging leftist party, seems to polarize a bit of attention with the “honorable” score its leader recorded at the last by-elections in Quatre Bornes. This party which basically stems from the defense of workers’ rights is appealing people to rally at Beau Bassin Taxi Stand with the slogan: “plas tout travayers li dans Beau Bassin”.
In Rodrigues the OPR (Organisation du Peuple Rodriguais) ruling party will be holding a gathering at Malabar while the MR (Mouvement Rodriguais) opposition party will meet at Mourouk, all with concert platforms staging famous singers and musicians.
It is part of the folklore for political parties to requisition as many buses and offer the traditional briyani and drinks with a detour to the seaside in an attempt to rally as many partisans as possible. It seems to be the case once again with the ruling party which is leaving no stone unturned to gather the mob in its favour.
As we approach the end of mandate of the present legislature next year, the ruling party wants no doubt to put all chances on its side as a prelude to the launching of its electoral campaign. Already it is subjected to accumulating frustrations in relation to the ongoing proliferation of drugs, state of law and order and perceived inequitable justice system, claims for salary alignment and increase, perception of corrupt and nepotistic practices, staked reputation for association with alleged doubtful investors, the widespread inconveniences in connection with delocalization of dwellers and small business owners from the controversial metro express track, the ever-increasing burden of economic stagnation with forced closure of the BAI consortium, termination of contracts of big companies purported to have been close to the previous regime and the related compensation claims resting as the sword of Damocles on the heads of the citizens. We could go on.
The announced privatization of the management of the water sector with an inevitable increase in the price of water as stressed by the concerned minister is another argument to deter people from political rallies. Confidence in political parties seems to be losing momentum with limited choice for alternatives.
In remembrance of those who struggled for workers’ emancipation, wreaths are laid by union leaders as well as political men at the respective tombs to perpetuate a long standing tradition. Dr. Maurice Curé, Emanuel Anquetil, Guy Rozemont, Anjalay are but a few of the martyrs of the labour movement in Mauritius.
But there are others for whom Labour Day will mean nothing; it’ll be a day just like any other day. They’ll prefer a round at the seaside or at the shopping malls or simply take a good rest at home with their close ones.
Anyway, one cannot underestimate people’s frustration these days with the ever-drastically-increasing prices of essential commodities. As low participation means unpopularity, the stakes are high for the government; just to self satisfy it’s not a Mayday for them!