Today, we commemorate the arrival of indentured labourers in Mauritius. It is a day of reflecting on their misery, their perseverance, their dedication and their achievements against all odds. Most of the indentured labourers, hailing from Bihar, India, were lured through false promises by unscrupulous recruitment agents. They were encouraged to come to work as labourers in sugarcane fields in Mauritius, an island where they could dig the land and find gold.
Once they landed here, they faced the brutal realities of life on the island. But they did not lose hope. With their little means, they worked hard and indeed with their blood and sweat turned the land into a gold mine where more than one century later their descendents are reaping benefits.
Why do we commemorate the arrival of indentured labourers every year? This is in order for us to understand what our ancestors went through, so that we learn and draw lessons from the past and we do not mete out the same treatment to others.
We are all immigrants who came here for a better life. Today, we are the employers and it’s now our turn to bring migrant workers from deprived regions of the globe to make them work for us. Unfortunately, even today, there are unscrupulous recruitment agents who fool migrant workers into believing that they will earn wonders here. Once they land here, most of them find out that working and salary conditions are not exactly according to the contract they signed. But they have no option, as most migrant workers spent a hefty sum in order to secure a job here: they have to pay huge commission to the agents, and often have to take loans, or pledge their properties to money lenders. Some even have to pledge a percentage of their monthly salary. It is thus impossible for them to turn down the job and go back. They have to work and earn and pay their debts to save their properties and families, as there are cases where their families back home are subjected to harassment or even violent intimidation if they fail to pay the dues.
Many foreign workers end up absconding from work. They run away and work for others. They overstay when the work permit expires. Their objective is to maximize their income. Given their illegal status, many are exploited by other employers. Some people make them work and refuse to pay them. When they complain, they are threatened. Some do come across good Samaritans who are willing to employ them with a decent salary, acceptable working conditions and accommodation but the law does not allow them to be reemployed. They end up working illegally, hiding from the authorities.
When they get caught, they are deported instantly. They are not given an opportunity to explain their situation. Solutions are not found to their problems. Many have to work here in order to send money back home to feed their ailing parents, or to finance their sister’s wedding. It is illogical to deport skilled migrant workers who are willing to work when the country has shortage of labour and needs those skills.
We have had cases where foreign workers have been victims of accidents but not rightfully compensated. Some have been lying in hospitals for months, and while the authorities look on, good citizens have fortunately stepped in to assist. It is sad to see how workers who come to Mauritius to contribute to our economic growth return home bed-ridden, paralysed, without a penny in compensation.
So, why do we become insensitive to their plight? How can we commemorate our ancestors’ plight every year and yet we do not draw any lesson? The 2nd November should be a moment where we also reflect on how we can improve the well-being of modern day indentured labourers, how to further protect them and how to compensate them when they become victims.