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National Assembly>Parliamentary Questions>Debate No 4 - Tuesday 30 March 2004

Debate No 4 - Tuesday 30 March 2004


 

 
WORKERS (FOREIGN)- EMPLOYMENT CONDITIONS
The Leader of the Opposition (Dr. N. Ramgoolam) (By Private Notice) asked the Minister of Labour, Industrial Relations and Employment whether, in regard to foreign workers employed in the EPZ, he will state -
(a) whether Chinese workers inquiring about the unfortunate death of one of their colleagues were beaten up by the Police and, if so, why;
(b) if his Ministry has carried out an investigation into allegations of ill-treatment and poor working and living conditions of Indian workers at Sentosa Enterprises Ltd., and, if so, its findings, and
(c) the resulting consequences from persistent adverse publicity of violation of basic workers' rights on our image in China, India and internationally.
Mr Soodhun: Mr Speaker, Sir, I would like to thank the Leader of the Opposition to have given me a golden opportunity to clarify the situation of the employment conditions of the foreign workers.
On 23 March 2003, one male Chinese worker of Tropic Knits Ltd aged 40 years was admitted to Victoria Hospital with fever and jaundice. According to the report of the Ministry of Health, he was given the necessary treatment, but his condition deteriorated and he passed away on 27 March 2004 at 3.20 a.m. The case was referred to the Police Medical Officer and an autopsy was carried out by Dr. Satish Boolell, who attributed the death to natural causes.
According to the contract of employment signed by the migrant worker and the company, the employer has the responsibility to repatriate the ashes to China after the cremation and to pay a sum of 10,000 US dollars to the family of the deceased. The employer contacted the family on the same day to know their decision.
However, at around 14 30 hrs, about 300 Chinese workers went to the Chinese Embassy and obstructed the road. They refused to comply to the request of the Police to move away. Instead, they became aggressive and according to a journalist of Top FM, who was present there, they had stones in their bags, which they hurled at the Police. The journalist has stated that it was the workers who provoked the incidents by aggressing the Police.
I am informed by the hon. Prime Minister that he was in communication with the Commissioner of Police permanently to follow the situation closely.
The workers threw stones on buses and also injured some passengers. In fact, without the timely intervention of the Police, the public would have reacted against the workers leading to a deterioration of the situation.
The Fire Services had to be called to clear the road. During the incident, four Police officers and three Chinese workers were injured. One Police vehicle and two buses of the United Bus Service were damaged.
The employer had granted the workers one day's leave on that day, in view of the demise of their colleague.
I called at the Embassy at around 17 00 hrs and despite protracted discussions until 11.30 p.m., in the presence of the representatives of the employer, the Chinese Embassy and the recruiting agent, the workers refused to return to their dormitory. They asked that, contrary to the provisions of the contract, the ashes or the dead body should not be sent to China, but the family of the deceased should come to Mauritius and should be paid an amount of 60,000 US dollars. On Sunday, they requested that they should be allowed not to work until the cremation on 02 April.
On Monday, the recruiting agent in China sent copy of an agreement which he signed with the family of the deceased stating that two members of the family would come to Mauritius at the expense of the recruiting agent and that a compensation would be paid to the family. This information was conveyed to the workers who expressed their satisfaction. They were also informed that they would be allowed to be on leave until Friday. Nevertheless they refused to go back to their dormitories.
The workers then asked for their team leader to be dismissed, which the employer has already accepted.
According to information received today, about 100 out of the 700 Chinese workers are still at the Embassy. They are now claiming for more overtime to be allocated to them and to be given leave up to Monday next. Their request for more overtime cannot be accepted as we have to comply with the maximum fixed by law and the requirements of the US compliance officers.
The recruiting agent from the province of Ningbo is expected to arrive on Wednesday or Thursday and further meetings will be held.
As regards part (b) of the question, in the case of Sentosa Enterprises Ltd., I made a statement last week. On 18 March 2004, the management of the company based at Fond du Sac tried to repatriate one worker for the following reasons -
(i) The worker was regularly absent without authorisation and was
never in the dormitory;
(ii) He was not complying with the discipline and internal
regulations.
My officers have been visiting the enterprise on 09 February, 09 and 10 March. The following complaints were made by the workers -
(i) the piece rate system implemented at the enterprise is not uniform. Different rates are paid to Chinese and Indian workers;
(ii) they claimed food allowance, instead of free meals;
(iii) they are not given overtime to perform;
Following my intervention, a tripartite meeting was held in the presence of Mr S. Hawoldar, representing the Indian expatriates. It was agreed to –
(i) establish a uniform piece rate system for all workers;
(ii) free breakfast, lunch and dinner will continue to be provided by
management;
I have approved the recruitment of 10 new cooks. A Food Co-ordinating Committee has been set up by the workers and will prepare their menu;
(iii) all workers who complete the daily target set by management
during normal working hours will automatically qualify to work overtime.
Following my personal intervention, each expatriate will be paid a special bonus of Rs 10,000 at the end of their contract.
I have also requested Management to set up a Works Council consisting of representatives of both the workers which will meet at monthly intervals with all their representations will be discussed on a regular basis.
Sir, concerning part (c) of the question, foreign workers are protected by the laws of the country in the same way as local workers. There has been a steady rise in foreign female workers because of the lack of machinists in the country and also because of their high productivity. The demand for foreign workers has mainly come from the EPZ, which employed 95% and 89% of foreign labour in 2000 and 2003 respectively. The number of foreign workers in the construction sector, who have all been male, has been around 350 for much of the period 1995 – 2003. The increase of foreign workers in construction in 2003 is due to the implementation of the Cyber Tower project by the Indian firm Larsen and Toubro.
However, everywhere in the world, there are good and bad employers. I agree that there are cases of abuse and my Ministry is taking action wherever required to deal with such employers. The hon. Leader of the Opposition should be aware that during his own period of Prime Ministership there were 55 strikes by migrant workers for various reasons concerning conditions of employment, including molesting and harassment.
Mr Speaker, Sir, I would like to point out that between 1996 and 2000, the number of foreign workers doubled from 9,795 to 14,574 but no structure was established to deal with enforcement and inspection of labour rights of the workers. I have taken various steps -
· I have set up a Special Foreign Workers Unit and have recruited a Chinese interpreter. Last year, 904 inspections were carried out and 178 complaints were investigated, and Rs4m. were obtained in favour of the workers;
· all the contracts of employment are vetted by my Ministry before the work permit is granted; 7,690 contracts were vetted last year;
· no work permit is granted without the fire and health clearances for the dormitories;
· my Ministry has produced brochures in Hindi, Chinese and English for the workers, describing the rights and responsibilities of workers;
· 300 workers' education sessions were organised, specifically for the foreign workers, to inform them of their rights and responsibilities;
· a co-ordination committee at my Ministry reviews the situation regularly in order to improve the service provided to the workers.
· 238 inspections were carried out to inspect dormitories.
· guidelines have been prepared for employers.
I have already initiated action for all enterprises employing foreign workers to set up Works Council.
Mr Speaker, Sir, the contract of employment of Chinese workers guarantees the payment of a minimum of 120 US dollars, in addition to other payments provided by the Remuneration Order. The foreign workers are entitled to meal allowances or the services of a cook, medical care and the services of the company doctor. Work permits are being given to cooks from the home country of the workers, in order to satisfy their requirements.
My Ministry is finalising regulations on dormitories.
It was also noted that salaries of Chinese workers were being paid in China. I have insisted, in 2001, with employers, that this practice should be stopped immediately and the workers' salary be paid in Mauritius. I have also discussed with the Chinese Embassy about the contract signed by workers in China with their recruiting agent, which is often not in conformity with the contract signed in Mauritius. The Chinese authorities have proposed that an agreement for bilateral co-operation be signed with the Chinese authority on the importation of Chinese labour through authorised recruiting agents only.
The problems raised at Tropic Knits and Sentosa do not give a true picture of the general employment situation of the migrant workers. We have received, in 2003, only 178 complaints from 22,440 foreign workers employed in 1,317 enterprises. This represents only 0.8%, which is a very low figure.
Regular reports are being sent to the US authorities, and there has been no adverse report from the US on the protection of rights of foreign workers.
Furthermore, ILO has, on various occasions, expressed its satisfaction on the Government policies towards foreign workers. The Director-General of ILO, Mr Juan Somavia, has commended Mauritius, and I quote -
"Mauritius has decided to set a different course and help lead the way to better lives for migrant workers. We, at the ILO, are pleased that Mauritius has elaborated national legislation and policies for employment of foreign workers on the basis of international labour standards. The Ministry of Labour has established a special office to monitor conditions of migrant workers and it is a model initiative".
Dr. Ramgoolam: Mr Speaker, Sir, after this long answer, I hope you will allow us extra time, because there are lots of questions which concern the death of the foreign worker.
Mr Speaker: Let me, right from the start, inform the hon. Leader of the Opposition that, according to the Standing Orders, only half an hour is allowed for the PNQ. I cannot, on my own, change this rule.
Dr. Ramgoolam: It's at your discretion.
Mr Speaker: I have a discretion. I have always used my discretion to give you a few additional minutes, but, in this case, you have asked for information and the Minister has given it.
Dr. Ramgoolam: I heard the hon. Minister say that the death was from natural causes. Can he confirm that?
Mr Soodhun: Mr Speaker, Sir, I have not made the report. I have got it from the Police Medical Officer, Dr. Satish Boolell. It is an official report, and it has been communicated to the Chinese Government on the same day, with the approval of the Chinese Embassy. I can table the report.
Dr. Ramgoolam: I don't care whether the Minister has approved the report or not. I am asking him about the cause of death.
(Interruptions)
That is the bloody question: the cause of death. Say what the cause of death is!
Mr Soodhun: I don't think that the Leader of the Opposition should get excited as the foreign workers! He has asked me a question on a dead person. As I mentioned, I am going to lay a copy of the report on the Table of the Assembly. There is no problem.
Dr. Ramgoolam: Can the hon. Minister confirm whether this Chinese worker has been complaining over one month about not feeling well and was actually mistreated and not sent to be seen by a doctor?
Mr Soodhun: Mr Speaker, Sir, according to information that I have, the worker was undergoing treatment by the company's doctor. Then the company's doctor referred the patient to hospital on 23 March, that is, last Tuesday. This is all information that I have. This is the exact information that I have got.
Dr. Ramgoolam: Can the hon. Minister say whether the worker has got a complete medical examination, including blood test?
Mr Soodhun: No, Sir, I did not have any complaint about that.
Dr. Ramgoolam: He was admitted to hospital about four days before he passed away. Can the Minister say what test was done at the hospital?
Mr Soodhun: Sir, I would be delighted to give this information. If the Leader of the Opposition gives me some time, I am going to ask the hospital to send it to me.
Dr. Ramgoolam: Does the Minister know what was the diagnosis in the hospital?
Mr Soodhun: Mr Speaker, Sir, I am not aware about the diagnosis. It is very difficult for me to go through this.
Dr. Ramgoolam: If I am asking this question and drawing the attention of the Minister, it is because he has said that the worker had jaundice and fever. If it was jaundice, he has to ensure whether it was hepatitis and, if so, what type of hepatitis, because there is a danger of a outbreak. If it is some type of hepatitis, there can be contagion. Is the Minister aware of that?
Mr Soodhun: Mr Speaker, Sir, I did not receive any complaint from anybody. I have only received information to the effect that he was undergoing treatment by the company's doctor and the latter referred him to hospital. Treatment has been given accordingly at the hospital. Let me inform the Leader of the Opposition that there is an official recruiting agent whom I have met personally. The gentleman agreed that treatment had been given to the satisfaction of everybody at the hospital.
Dr. Ramgoolam: The Minister is saying that there is no complaint, but people are protesting since a few days. They are complaining…
(Interruptions)
No, make no mistake! You were not there! They are complaining because of the way that Chinese worker has been treated, and the way he has not been allowed to go to hospital. That is why there was a complaint!
(Interruptions)
Where is the bloody question? The point is that there was a complaint! The Minister is saying there was no complaint. The workers are complaining – maybe, the Minister is not complaining – about the treatment being meted out, as if they were the new coolies from China.
Mr Soodhun: Mr Speaker, Sir, there was no complaint from the workers. The only complaint was that they were asking for US $60,000. This is what they were asking, and there was no complaint. They were complaining against the team leader, who did not inform them about the death of the worker. The only reason why they went to the Embassy was to have information on the death of the worker.
Dr. Ramgoolam: The Minister can say that there is no complaint, but it is in the papers. They are complaining about the way he was treated and his death.
(Interruptions)
It is in the papers! The Minister doesn't know! He doesn't want to know! That is, perhaps, why he is attacking the two trade unionists who are saying that the way the workers are being treated is similar to a semi slavery situation. Does he agree with that?
Mr Soodhun: No, Sir. There was no complaint at all. I have to congratulate one journalist of Top FM who mentioned yesterday, when I was giving a press communiqué, that he was the first person who informed the trade unions. I am not going to lie; and the gentleman is here.
Dr. Ramgoolam: Does the Minister recall that, about some two years ago, there was a similar case of a young Chinese worker, a lady, who, again, had been ill for about a month and not sent to hospital, and then passed away? Then, there was a six-day strike. Does he recall that?
Mr Soodhun: Mr Speaker, Sir, it was the case of a worker from Novel Garments. It was exactly last year; the worker was referred to City Clinic. He was undergoing treatment in a private clinic. He was not even referred to hospital. The company sent him, at its own cost, to a private clinic. This is the exact information.
Dr. Ramgoolam: What I am saying is that two years ago there was a similar situation. What corrective measures were taken two years ago so that a similar situation does not repeat itself?
(Interruptions)
Mr Speaker: Order!
Mr Soodhun: I have already informed the House about the measures that we have taken. In 1996 we had five strikes; in 1997 there were nine strikes…
(Interruptions)
Dr. Ramgoolam: Mr Speaker, Sir, on a point of order, I will ask the Minister to answer the question and not give other information. He must answer supplementary questions!
(Interruptions)
He has to answer.
Mr Speaker: Order please! Order! I am not going to teach the hon. Minister how to answer questions. But I understand that the hon. Leader of the Opposition has asked what corrective measures were taken. If the Minister could kindly give the information, please.
(Interruptions)
Dr. Ramgoolam: If the Minister would give way, I am asking what corrective measures the Ministry took two years ago so that the situation does not repeat itself, not the measures taken now. What did the Minister do two years ago?
Mr Soodhun: Mr Speaker, Sir, let me inform the Leader of the Opposition that as from 2001, we have set up a special unit with a Chinese interpreter. We have introduced Works Councils; there is a Health and Occupational Safety Committee which is regularly meeting and we are insisting that the employer takes care of the foreign workers who are our guest workers and we do treat them well.
Dr. Ramgoolam: This is precisely why I am asking this. He has taken all these measures, but in fact he must admit that his corrective measures are not working, because two years later there is the same problem as he has had.
Mr Soodhun: Mr Speaker, Sir, it is not the same problem. We are having nearly 22,000 workers. Does the Leader of the Opposition mean to say that nobody will fall ill? Nobody will be sent to hospital? Is the Leader of the Opposition telling me not to send these people to hospital? It is not fair! Not fair!
Dr. Ramgoolam: If you remember the article of Newsweek in August 2002 where it was said the complaint was that workers were not being given proper treatment and that they were not being sent to hospital and they were called the new coolies. That is what happened two years ago. What corrective measures did the Minister take to prevent such things from happening again?
Mr Soodhun: Sir, it is true what the Leader of the Opposition is saying, but immediately the representative was sent to see the true picture and it was corrected. After one month this was corrected…
(Interruptions)
The Leader of the Opposition is aware of it and he knows me very well. I have never ill treated the workers. I spent the whole night, the whole Sunday, I work 24 hours. He knows me very well…
(Interruptions)
Mr Duval: Mr Speaker, the hon. Minister himself mentioned that there are guidelines that have been issued for the treatment of the foreign workers in Mauritius, but they do not have the force of law. When are we going to have proper law to protect foreign workers coming to work in Mauritius?
Mr Soodhun: Sir, all the workers are protected under the Labour Act, the Industrial Relations Act and this afternoon I am coming with an amendment to the Labour Act to reinforce the conditions and treatment of the workers, about the harassment and so on. Concerning the guidelines, I must say that they are very important and we do have certain good and bad employers, we admit it. With the collaboration of the representatives of the trade unions, the guidelines were launched by the Mauritius Employers' Federation themselves. They are agreeable to it and they are implementing it.
Mr Duval: Mr Speaker, the whole point is that the guidelines do not have force of law and Government cannot act and prosecute bad employers under guidelines. I am asking Government to have proper regulations issued for the treatment and living conditions of foreign workers in Mauritius, to see whether their passports can be kept by the employers, whether their pay is paid to them or into a company account, how many people can sleep in a dormitory. It is important for the reputation of Mauritius that a proper law be introduced to protect foreign workers in Mauritius.
Mr Soodhun: Sir, I would like to inform the hon. Member that there are special regulations being prepared for dormitories. After the inquiry we introduced a regulation and let me inform the House that there is no difference between local and foreign workers. The local workers are being respected as well as all the workers. I can't make a discrimination between local and foreign workers. As I have mentioned earlier, before issuing a work permit, the employers have to produce a fire and health certificate, occupational health safety norms for dormitories. If these do not satisfy the officers, they are not issued with a work permit.
Mr Duval: Mr Speaker, Sir, any textile worker will tell you about the state in which these foreign workers are living. These guidelines are not being followed. I would like to ask the Minister whether it is still the practice for employers to keep the passports of their workers with them, keeping them, therefore, in a state of semi-slavery as the Leader of the Opposition said. Is it also the practice for employers to pay the wages of these foreign workers into a company bank account and hold it there for six months without interest before …
(Interruptions)
Mr Speaker: Order!
Mr Duval: Mr Speaker, I will answer. Can I answer? Does the Minister want me to give you names here? Look at Promintex in Roches Brunes, go and have a look…
(Interruptions)
Mr Speaker: Order! Order please!
(Interruptions)
The Prime Minister: Shame!
Mr Soodhun: Sir, the hon. Minister was the Minister of Industry and he must know that in May 2000, the workers were not paid in Mauritius…
(Interruptions)
I am giving facts! Sir, you remember their pay slip was published, they were getting Rs300 only; it was shocking. I took the decision to stop this bad practice immediately.
(Interruptions)
Mr Speaker: Order!
Mr Dulloo: We can see what sort of threats and vulgarity are being uttered in this House! It is a shame that we have such a Prime Minister these days, threatening with such violence and vulgarity Members of this House! Mr Speaker, Sir, the hon. Minister just said …
(Interruptions)
Mr Speaker: Order please! I can't hear what the hon. Member is saying.
Mr Dulloo: Mr Speaker, Sir, the hon. Minister just said…
(Interruptions)
Mr Speaker: Order, please! I cannot hear what the hon. Member is saying.
(Interruptions)
Can you please keep quiet? Yes, hon. Dulloo.
Mr Dulloo: We are being put into threats even in this House! Mr Speaker, Sir, the hon. Minister just said…
(Interruptions)
Mr Speaker: Order! I cannot hear what the hon. Member is saying.
Mr Dulloo: Guess who is disturbing!
(Interruptions)
Mr Speaker: There are interruptions from both sides of the House. Hon. Leader of the Opposition, you know that I am calling Members from both sides of the House to keep silent.
(Interruptions)
But the hon. Member has the floor.
(Interruptions)
Order!
Mr Dulloo: The Prime Minister is creating disorder. He is the leader of the House; he should set the good example, but he is not called to order.
(Interruptions)
Mr Speaker, Sir, the hon. Minister just said that he never threatened the workers. May I ask him…
Mr Speaker: Hon. Dulloo, if you are quoting from the newspaper, I cannot allow it.
(Interruptions)
You know the practice that you cannot quote from newspapers, because you cannot vouch for the truth of the article therein. If you have information, it is better that you put it to the House. I won't allow you to quote from the newspaper.
Mr Dulloo: I am not quoting; I have never quoted from any newspaper. I have been stopped; one or two minutes have gone. Mr Speaker, Sir, the Minister quoted from Top FM. It is his business. I am asking the hon. Minister whether he did not make a public declaration relying on the fact - and he repeated it - that the country is going through a very difficult economic situation; he appealed to the workers and he then threatened the workers that should they behave in the manner they did, they would be dismissed forthwith, they may lose their years of service and that they would be deported. And this public declaration was relayed on the MBC radio and television last night.
Mr Soodhun: Sir, I would just like to remind the Member that he is referring to the case of Sentosa Enterprises Ltd. which is in his constituency and he knows very well that if this factory is going to close down, his electorate will be unemployed. So, let me tell the House that there is no threat at all on my part. I have spoken the truth and there is a discipline and it should be maintained by everybody.
Dr. Ramgoolam: Mr Speaker, Sir, the Minister said that there is no discrimination. Does he know - I have payslips with me - that they have been getting only about Rs3,000, not Rs6,000 or Rs8,000 as he mentioned? Is he aware of that?
Mr Soodhun: Sir, once again, the Leader of the Opposition is referring to the workers of Sentosa Enterprises Ltd. I know that he has a payslip and I know who has given it to him, but it is only for a particular month. It is for the month of February where there were no orders.
(Interruptions)
And now the workers are getting order and they are going to get more. I agree it was for the month of February because there was no order.
(Interruptions)
Mr Speaker: Time is almost up. I am allowing only two questions to the hon. Leader of the Opposition.
Dr. Ramgoolam: I want to remind the hon. Minister that it is not for the month of February. I can lay it on the Table of the Assembly.
(Interruptions)
Secondly, does he know that there is discrimination even on the meal allowances, for example - I have the figures here - the Chinese workers are paid between Rs1,500 and Rs1,800; Indian workers - it seems are inferior - from Rs700 to Rs1,200, and Malagasy and Bangladeshi workers, even worse, from Rs400 to Rs700? Is he aware of that?
Mr Soodhun: Sir, again the hon. Leader of the Opposition is referring to Sentosa Enterprises Ltd. where the Chinese workers get their meal allowance and they prepare their own food, whereas for the Indian workers the management is providing food, and they have signed an agreement which I can table. The management is providing breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Mr Speaker: Time is up.
Dr. Ramgoolam: I have two questions, Sir. Can he explain why when big international firms are concerned about intellectual property law, the Government reacts very promptly, but when it concerns basic rights of workers, the Minister is threatening workers on television. What impact does he think that will have on these pays de peuplement? The hon. Prime Minister often says Mother India, China. What impact will all this have on these pays de peuplement?
Mr Soodhun: I have already answered. There is no discrimination against anybody. As I mentioned, they are our guest workers. We treat them as guest workers. All is uniform. There is no discrimination.
(Interruptions)
Mr Speaker: Order!
Mr Speaker: Questions to the hon. Prime Minister. I have been advised that PQ B/110 would be answered by the hon. Minister of Finance at the end of question, time permitting, of course.