New Internationalist

The slide of sugar

Issue 388
Illustration by Sarah John
Illustration by Sarah John

A friend of mine from the women’s movement, Kawlowtee, announced in 2001: ‘I’m fed up! I’m taking my VRS!’ She was referring to the Voluntary Retirement Scheme.

She’s a big strong woman, who for 14 years had worked as a labourer on a sugar estate in the South. This meant she’d led an orderly life. Generations of cane-workers had struggled for it. The work is hard, so the hours had got short. The sun is hot, so you start work early. You have time: for family, the women’s movement, St John’s Ambulance, to play in a band, whatever. You get new work gloves every three weeks. And extra money for cutting cane on a slope. The pay’s OK too, totalling around $120 a month.

Kawlowtee and her husband had bought their housing estate house when the Government was selling them off cheap. Then they had taken a bank loan to add three rooms for the children. Their daughter, a cashier in a transnational retail firm, and an older manual-worker son could both help with repayments – as well as with their younger brother’s schooling.

Then Kawlowtee’s life gets hit by globalization: the price of sugar is to be fixed by the free market now.

During decolonization, when countries like Mauritius were faced with the riddle of how to be ‘independent’ with a monocrop economy invented to foster dependence, the Lomé Agreement between Europe and its ex-colonies solved it, fixing quotas at guaranteed prices. The agreement arguably also served to tie the economy even further into subservience and lined the pockets of the sugar oligarchs, but it did provide some security for workers like Kawlowtee.

Until liberalism came back.

Now, the World Trade Organization’s Dispute Settlement Tribunal finds Europe to be ‘illegally subsidizing’ sugar. Its judgment in favour of Australian, Thai and Brazilian sugar producers who cry unfair competition is binding. Sugar prices will fall around 40 per cent in the next few years.

The estate owners and Government see only one way out: cut costs by destroying jobs in their tens of thousands.

Kawlowtee doesn’t agree. ‘I don’t want to retire!’ she said. ‘Who would at 42?’

But after the first batch of older women nearing retirement age accept the VRS package, work gets tough for the rest. Workloads increase, unemployment rises, casual workers move in on lower wages. The bosses put the screws on younger labourers to take their VRS too. Kawlowtee, a union organizer, realizes they’ll find a pretext to kick her out anyway. So she takes her VRS. With the sum of $2,125, plus the promise of a tiny plot of land, she becomes unemployed.

At this point, her husband runs off with a younger woman. So Kawlowtee and her children continue the $75 repayments on the house.

She lands a job with a cleaning company. She gives a false address because they won’t take someone from the south because of the bus fares. So, part of her pay goes on transport. How much is her pay? $75 a month.

And work is chaotic. The hours are long and shifting. Every morning, the supervisor calls Kawlowtee on her mobile to tell her when and where to report for work. Go clean a supermarket here! Scrub a government building there!

‘The boss can get at me,’ she marvels in disbelief, ‘even when I’m at home in pyjamas! That’s globalization for you.’

Kawlowtee chips away at the VRS money for loan repayments. She buys a computer for her son doing A-levels. ‘May help him get a job next year,’ she says. Then her daughter falls in love with an Italian colleague brought in to fix computers at work. More VRS money goes into the wedding and her daughter emigrates.

Her older son, having become unemployed, ends up, like thousands of youngsters, in jail – stole a mobile phone from a tourist.

Bank repayments become impossible.

So the bank is foreclosing. Her house is the collateral. She, like her workmates, still hasn’t got the promised bit of VRS land. And when she does get it, divorce being an archaically slow process, Kawlowtee will probably only get half. By law, half will belong to her ‘husband’.

Kawlowtee’s isn’t a hard-luck story. She’ll manage. But her story is typical.

The lives of everyone in Mauritius are in similar disruption and disequilibrium. It’s not unlike the wild descriptions of 19th-century liberal capitalism that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels gave in their Manifesto and, interestingly enough, a Mauritian Creole version of that has just been launched in both book and audio CD format.

Lindsey Collen is a Mauritian novelist.

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