Mauritius-Rights: Sceptical Welcome for Equality Law

Port-Louis (IPS) – Nobody shall suffer prejudice in his social life or his place of work because of his or her ethnic origin, religion, age, sexual orientation, political conviction or physical handicap. This is the challenge of Mauritius’s new Equal Opportunities Act (EOA).

In Mauritius, the Constitution guarantees everybody’s rights. Yet, women, minorities and many other people suffer from discrimination in jobs, and other fields. This is done in such a way that they are difficult to be detected.

Women are systematically marginalised in politics, in high-level jobs and also at the level of trade-unions. Access to hotels and the beaches lying at some prestigious tourist resorts is still effectively prohibited and local people are bullied by security guards while sitting on this part of public domain.

The new legislation adopted in December 2008 prohibits any form of discrimination, directly or indirectly. It is meant to ensure that every Mauritian gets equal opportunities to achieve his goals in every field. He is thus protected from being wronged because of his age, ethnic origin, colour, race, physical state, caste, marital status, political opinions, belongings or sexual likings.

Two structures have been set up – an Equal Opportunities Division and an Equal Opportunities Tribunal. The first is to deal with for the elimination of discrimination and the promotion of equality of opportunity and good relations between persons of different status while the second will hear complaints referred to it, issue interim orders and determine whether the complaint is justified.

“Nobody can make everybody equal but we have the duty to see that everybody gets equal chances in life”, Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam told the population on New Year Day.

There is lively debate about how the new law will succeed.

Employment is one sphere of activity where discrimination against ethnic minorities including Creoles, Muslims and Tamils is clearly visible.

They face great difficulties getting jobs in the public sector. It is widely believed that politicians have their own list of candidates for each of the jobs available; the evidence pointed to is that most of the time they recommend people from their own community.

Minorities have long been asking for quotas. Catholic Priest Jocelyn Grégoire, who leads the one-year-old Federation of Mauritian Creoles (FCM), states that he wants an affirmative action in favour of Creoles, in terms of employment in the public sector.

“We want 35 percent of the jobs because Creoles represent 35 percent of the 1.2 million Mauritian population. We only have 2 percent [of positions in the public service],” he said.

Prime Minister Ramgoolam is however opposed to quotas or positive discrimination that favour certain sections of the population, calling it regressive. He claims that the EOA is about the rights of the individual while quota or positive discrimination represents groups’ rights.

“It would be a mistake to go down that road as I always believe in meritocracy,” he insists, arguing that just like no law can make the common man rich, there is no law that can make man equal. “It is simply a change in attitude that can make the difference,” Ramgoolam believes.

But Loga Virahsawmy, president of Media Watch, a local NGO, feels that the minorities need some structures to help them climb up the ladder. She told IPS that some people have been marginalised to such an extent over the years that only positive discrimination will help them prosper and live decently in the Mauritian society.

The EOA, she emphasises, is an important piece of legislation for social justice. But, she deplores, “we know too well what goes in our private and public sectors regarding jobs.”

Politics, public and private administration and trade-unions and others are all male-dominated areas, according to Virahsawmy. “Can Mauritius achieve the 50 percent of women representation in Parliament and in decision-making positions by 2015 without the introduction of quotas?”, she asks.

Presently, women constitute only 7.7 percent of the total number of members of Parliament – 11 out of 70. Now that local councillors receive a monthly stipend of roughly 210 dollars, she suspects that “men would certainly block the women more now than before.”

During the debates in Parliament, Social Security Minister Sheila Bappoo raised the issue of land by denouncing the small number of people who possess the majority of the land in the island.

“The sugar barons have put in place an economic system which they manage according to their convenience. The EOA will expand the democratic space,” she said.

But Atma Doolooa, a political analyst and businessman is not convinced. “Will we now have free access to the hotels which are a different and alien planet for the common Mauritian?”

He recalls an incident in which a minister’s wife was prevented from visiting a foreign friend in a resort hotel; she was forced to take her friend somewhere else to talk after hotel management insisted “visitors” were not allowed in. Such cases of discrimination are rarely reported to the authorities.

From another perspective, trade unionist Ashok Subron believes that while the EOA is designed to struggle against discrimination, in employment and other fields, it will come up against the Employment Rights Act (ERA) also passed in 2008, which gives a blank cheque to the private sector to sack employees without any justification.

“This legislation is full of paradoxes”, deplores barrister Sunil Bheeroo.

One of them, according him, is the provision that allows an employer to discriminate on the basis of political belief or activity. “This means that nobody else apart from the political agents would be recruited as ministerial advisers, members of staff of a political party, members of the electorate staff of any person or any similar employment.”

Bheeroo told IPS that this exception reveals the intentions of politicians who are in power.

“They themselves prohibit employers from discriminating while recruiting their staff. Yet, they authorise them to do so while recruiting their political agents and friends, though in most cases they are incompetent or inept for the jobs identified”, he emphasises.

In fairness, Mauritus’s Equal Opportunity Act is brand new, and the Tribunal has not yet been given a chance to flex its muscle. Women and members of minority groups will need to test the commitment of government to fulfilling the promise of the new law.

by IPS Correspondents, Nasseem Ackbarally
Source – IPS News