With the workers’ rights bill currently being debated in the National Assembly, Weekly speaks to Reaz Chuttoo and Jane Ragoo, of the Confédération des Travailleurs du secteur privé (CTSP) about what the law will mean for both employees and employers.
There is a big polemic around the workers’ rights bill. First of all what is this bill about?
Reaz Chuttoo: It’s about doing justice to the workers. Let me give you some examples. Presently, the employers have the power to sack a worker without any justification. They just send a letter stating ‘economic grounds’ and off the employee goes. This is against natural justice. Under the new bill, there is a redundancy board. Natural justice also says that for one crime, there cannot be two punishments. For example, if a worker does something wrong, s/he is sacked. That is punishment. You can’t punish him/her a second time.
What do you mean? If an employee has stolen Rs10 million from a company, you just sack him and let him go with Rs10 million? Is that natural justice according to you?
Yes. You cannot have two punishments for one crime.
Do you really mean that the employer has a choice between sacking the employee and allowing him to walk away with his loot or keeping him instead if he wants his own money back?
Yes. You can fire me or send me to the police; that is your right. But you cannot penalise me for the 40 years of service I have given to the company. You cannot punish me retroactively.
One of the main items of this bill is the portable pension. How does that work in practice?
There are 400,000 private sector workers and out of this figure, 72,000 workers are covered by a private pension scheme. According to the pension law, whatever the employer has contributed for the employee for more than two years, irrespective of what the employee has done, the employer cannot touch that money. So if I have committed a crime in an enterprise, obviously I will go to jail but the contribution in my name by the employer will remain there for me to use. Just as a pension scheme will remain mine, whatever happens.
This is advantageous for the employee – which is of course your main concern as a union leader – but what does it mean for the employer?
The employer too gains. He has at least two advantages. If a worker works in a company and retires at the age of 60, the employer is supposed to pay him Rs500,000, which amounts to gratuity retirement. Now instead of having to find this amount to pay the employee this lump sum, the employer will contribute on a monthly basis.
How does the employer gain by paying in instalments?
When you are paying today, you are basing your payments on today’s basic wage, but gratuity will be calculated on the last wage received, which is higher. The second advantage is that the money the employer contributed will be invested and the returns on that will go to the employer and not the employee. This is a major advantage, so by the time the employer has contributed, when you take into account return on investment, at present it is 15 days’ wages for each year of service, under the new system, in real terms, it can actually be only 13 days if you count in returns on investment.
If the law is so good, why are other unions like the General Workers’ Federation (GWF) marching against it?
We are all in favour of the law, except for the GWF. Yesterday, I denounced them because the GWF has been hijacked by the Rezistans ek Aternativ, and it’s hard for them to admit that their political opponents are doing at least one good thing.
But don’t they have a point about the new bill reducing the threshold of union recognition to 20 per cent? Wouldn’t it make it easier for bosses to create yellow unions?
That is false. The GWF doesn’t know what’s in the bill. Right now you have a threshold of 30 per cent for recognition. What does this mean? It means that if the employer is not willing to recognise the union, the union needs 30 per cent to go before the Employment Relations Tribunal and get recognised officially. I stress: ‘not willing to recognise’ because if the employer voluntarily recognises a union with just one per cent membership, that is his right.
What about the Rs4 billion they said the workers will lose with the Portable Retirement Gratuity Fund (PRGF)?
Their reading applies only to a pension fund…
What’s the difference?
It’s simple. The PRGF is not a pension fund. It is a portable gratuity fund. This means that depending on the months of contribution, the employee will get whatever money they have put into the fund. So, whether they are 50 or 60 years old, with the PRGF, what they will get depends on the months of contribution.
What if under a private pension scheme the employee gets less than 15 days remuneration for each year of service?
In that case, the employer will have to top up. We have already checked that, asked the right questions and obtained the answers.
What about sectors like sugar, livestock and field stock, where the gratuity is more than 15 days per year of service?
The employees in those sectors will keep the benefits.
What you are telling me is that the GWF is protesting only out of bad faith?
Isn’t section 74 of the bill problematic? Wouldn’t the workers have to pay Rs136 million under the new law?
That section says that a one per cent contribution will be deducted from the basic wages and put into the Workfare Programme. That is more or less the same thing as is the case now. The contribution made from the workers’ wages goes to the National Savings Fund (NSF) and from the NSF to the Workfare Programme Fund. It comes to the same thing.
Are you sure the workers would not have to pay any more?
Yes. One per cent will remain one per cent. The difference is that presently, this goes into a recycling fee if the employer has contributed less. Under the new law, there will be no recycling fee.
If this law is good for the employee and good for the employer, as you say, then why are the employers up in arms?
It’s so simple. To understand that you have to go back to 2008. Despite the international financial crisis, then-Minister of Finance Rama Sithanen and his Financial Secretary Ali Mansoor, came up with the Employment Rights Act. According to this act, whenever a worker was sacked after a disciplinary committee, his past service was taken into account and paid out. On 11 June 2013, then Labour Minister Shakeel Mohamed made a 180 degree amendment allowing employers not to pay a penny to any worker sacked after a disciplinary committee. This represented a major gain for employers.
Business Mauritius is asking for a risk assessment to assess the impact of the proposed changes. Do you see any problem with that?
We agree to that but on the condition that there is also an assessment of how many workers have been sacked through a disciplinary committee, how many companies today have permanent jobs but are recruiting casual workers doing the work of equal value but are not paid the same. So, let’s take the effect of the current laws with what’s being proposed and then compare. We are ready for it. Then everyone will understand.
What are you hoping they will understand?
That from a moral standpoint, most of the shortcomings of the previous laws have been rectified. Of course, we didn’t get 100 per cent of what we wanted, but the bill is satisfactory. This government has understood that people in Mauritius are no longer fools. The money might come from business, but not the votes.
Some people might call that electoral bribery.
Of course not. This process started in 2015 not in 2019. We were asked to submit our proposals. Business Mauritius delayed it to 2017, but by the end of 2017, they only submitted part of their proposals and privileged lobbying in the corridors of government because they thought that people in government were with them. We still don’t have a copy of what they submitted.
Jane Ragoo: We were told to submit our proposals and we asked what Business Mauritius had submitted and, till today, we have had nothing. I think they have not submitted anything and I challenge Mr. Pradeep Dursun (chief operating officer –ed) to produce the proposals that they submitted to government. What we have submitted is no secret. Where are their papers?
Some employers are saying that it’s all very well to have laws but if we cannot afford them there will be casualties. Can we afford this law?
J.R: I have been in the trade union movement for the past 36 years. There always have been and always will be casualties, but with this law, they will be protected because of the PRGF.
R.C: With the minimum wage, there was the same song: there would be closure of companies etc.
Weren’t there closures?
Of course, this is business. Some will close, some will open. But let’s look at the national figures. The percentage of unemployment has decreased.
The figures for unemployment have decreased because there are fewer people on the market, not because of job creation. The unemployment figures have not gone down.
I don’t agree with you. This is your point of view.
No, these are the figures, not my opinion.
No, I will tell you how we assess these figures. We are in a whole economic sector, not only in one particular place. Go on the internet and you will see the number of small and medium enterprises (SMEs). If the worst comes, we will get jobless growth. This song that there will be a loss of jobs has to stop.
There is also the problem of shifts in sectors that run 24/7. Do you see things from the perspective of those employers?
I am not against the shift system. But you can’t have a 12-hour shift. I put the question to you as a journalist. What matters the most to you? Is it the health and safety of the workers, or the profit of the business? There are many scientific reports that show that working more than eight hours at night has a direct impact on the brain. So, instead of working a shift of 12 hours, we work for eight hours? Is it not good?
So why are the employers complaining?
Because they would have to reduce their profits, recruit more workers in order to have a shift system of eight hours. It’s simple. We are conservative. We don’t like to lose what we have gained. It’s a fact; it’s human nature.
They are losing then? We are no longer talking about how advantageous the new law is to them, are we?
Obviously, if they recruit more workers, the cost of running the business will increase and obviously, it will have an impact on the profit, which will decrease.
And will that not lead to the closing down of some businesses?
There are many businesses that have closed down because of fraud by their top managers. This is a fact. Why don’t you talk about those managers who have been involved in fraud and wrong dealings? There will be many businesses that will close down, others will remain open and there will be growth in spite of the fewer jobs. This is the fate of businesses around the world because of the pace of digitalisation. You cannot stop it.
JR: I would like to stress the fact that why as trade unionists, we are for that law, because in the public sector there is one book which talks about the conditions of work, while in the private sector you have 30 remuneration orders which regulate different sectors. And there are people working in the finance, the services and the BPO sectors who are not covered by any law. This new law will correct this injustice in two ways. Firstly, we’ll have only one book which will regulate the conditions of work which will apply to all workers in the private sector, and even sectors like call-centres. That’s why Business Mauritius are crying. Their members are thinking, ‘We will now have to abide by the law’. Isn’t it good that people in Mauritius are covered by one and the same law? The new law brings a kind of harmonisation and I think it’s justice being done to all workers.
Why would Business Mauritius complain about harmonisation?
RC: It’s so simple. Today, in all the sectors of the economy, despite having permanent job vacancies, employers can recruit through job contractors and pay less than the existing collective agreement in the country. They don’t want to have a Redundancy Board. Why? Because they want to sack workers without justification. They don’t want to pay when a worker is sacked for misconduct. So, in effect, they want two punishments for one crime. They don’t want to contribute to a PRGF even if it is to their own advantage...
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