Weekly (Port Louis)

10 August 2012

Mauritius: 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 first 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 fight until the last ditch. It is now difficult to see how an orderly exit out of the conflict 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 financial 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 specificities 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.

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