Weekly (Port Louis)

Mauritius: Interview of Nita Deerpalsing: 'The sugar barons are showing bad faith'

interview

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!

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