Every 01 May marks the Labour Day in Mauritius, coinciding with the International Labour Day, whereby workers push for improved labour rights. Two years after the creation of the Mauritius Labour Party (1936) the Labour Day was celebrated for the first time at the Champ de Mars in Mauritius in 1938.
During the 1940s, the struggle to improve the conditions of the working class intensified. On 13 September 1943, a strike started on the Belle Vue Harel estate, followed by a religious ceremony by the workers on 27 September. The police were summoned and the hostile crowd resisted to evacuate the place. This was followed by a firing, leading to the death of the emblematic Anjalay Coopen who was pregnant, Kistnasamy Mooneesamy and Moonsamy Moonien. A few days later, Marday Panapen passed away following injury at the strike.
Following a long struggle to improve the working conditions of labourers, upon a motion of Guy Rozemont, with the support of Raymond Rault, Sookdeo Bissoondoyal and Dr. Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, the then Governor, Sir Hilary Blood, proclaimed 01 May 1950 as a public holiday.
The struggle for the conditions and rights of workers is not alien to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer (LGBTQ) people.
Bayard Rustin, an African American civil and workers’ rights activist and openly gay person was chosen by Dr. Martin L. King, to organise several major campaigns, including the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which was the platform where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech and which accelerated the passage of major civil rights legislation. In a 1986 speech, Bayard Rustin vocally and strongly advocated for a change in the landscape of civil rights activism: “The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.”
In the 1980s, a group of LGBTQ activists supported a small Welsh town during the UK miners’ strike for a better living and won over hearts and minds through common human values.
Labour politics have been closely associated with queer activism for American workers during the 1970s and 1980s, where unions began affirming the rights of LGBTQ workers through the creation of alliances between unions and LGBTQ communities. Queer caucuses in trade unions introduced domestic partner benefits, union-based AIDS education for health care workers and fuelled the campaigns for marriage equality and other gay civil rights issues.
In Mauritius, in 2008, the Mauritius Labour Party passed the Employment Relations Act preventing harassment at workplace including on the basis of one’s sexual orientation and the Employment Rights Act which provided for equal employment opportunities and non-discrimination at workplace on the basis of one’s sexual orientation. In 2019, the Employment Rights Act was replaced by the Workers’ Rights Act catering for LGBTQ people in the same way. In private companies, as part of their inclusion and diversity initiatives, LGBTQ people are valued and feel included at work.
Despite the progress made, in Mauritius, the different laws do not cater for a number of employment related rights, conditions and benefits for LGBTQ people – trans people have no labour rights soever under the different laws, there are no workers’ benefits for a same-sex partner in case of the death of the other working partner and there is skewed discrimination for LGBTQ people under the Civil Service Family Protection Scheme Act.
While we celebrate the Labour Day, in view of the legal void, let us be reminded that for LGBTQ people, the struggle for equal rights in employment is far from won. As penned by Martin Luther King, Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.
Young Queer Alliance