Thursday, January 3, 2019: 1:30 PM
Stevens C-5 (Hilton Chicago)
The global economic depression of the 1930s conjugated with the decline of the international sugar market had local reverberations in Mauritius. This was most evident in a series of strikes in 1937. Casual workers clashed with estate managers over low wages and an ambivalent labor recruitment process. Responses abounded from various corners of the British empire. The local colonial state scrambled to establish a Commission of Enquiry to investigate the causes of the unrest. In India, the Imperial Indian Citizenship Association quickly contacted the Government of India to probe into the oppression of casual workers, most of whom were descendants of Indian indentured workers. After a laborious investigation, the Commission of Enquiry recommended the creation of industrial associations and a Labor Department to mitigate workers’ discontent. Six years later, in 1943, new strikes surfaced thus suggesting the failure of industrial associations and the lethargy of the newly created Labor Department. The compounding economic pressures of World War II also impacted workers’ daily lives and diets. By 1944, the local colonial government and the Colonial Office in London relented and institutionalized trade unionism in Mauritius.
Using Hindi newspapers and colonial sources, this paper argues that even before the materialization of trade unions, workers had resorted to mutual aid societies and baitkas (socio-religious associations) to weather challenging economic circumstances. The paper thus posits that a network of collective action (strikes, mutual aid associations & baitkas) and horizontal alliances (dock workers and sugar estate workers) characterized labor mobilization between 1920 and 1945 in colonial Mauritius.