The Road to Mauritius: Report on the Brainstorm Meeting for the 2012 Global Forum on Migration & Development (GFMD)

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[Published by Migrants Rights International (MRI) at: http://www.facebook.com/MigrantsRightsInternational]

Background:  During the 2011 GFMD in Geneva, we were introduced to the Chair of the 2012 GFMD, Ali Mansoor, the Finance Secretary of Mauritius.  Taking that opportunity, MRI organized a meeting between Mr. Mansoor and the African civil society representatives present at the GFMD, especially with members of the Pan-African Network in Defense of Migrants Rights (PANiDMR).  Following the meeting, Mr. Mansoor extended invitations to MRI, PANiDMR and other civil society to participate in a brainstorming meeting for the 2012 GFMD on 19 January 2012.  The following is an account of the meeting and related events in Mauritius...

(Mauritian urban development, sugar plantations, and highlands)(Mauritian urban development, sugar plantations, and highlands)

In spite of the long and spasm-inducing 38-hour journey (a new record, even for me) literally from the other side of the world in California, I immediately sat up to gaze intently out the airplane window as the pilot announced our approach into Port Louis, Mauritius.  To me, so much of the African continent is still so new and awe-inspiring, but Mauritius certainly has a uniqueness all to itself and I didn't want to miss anything.

(Mauritius in the African continent)(Mauritius in the African continent)

Set far off the south-east coast of the continent, and in the midst of the west Indian Ocean, Mauritius is a small island-nation historically infamous as the home of the dodo bird brought to extinction by Portuguese settlers.  As an uninhabited island, its first recorded discovery was by Arab explorers in the 10th Century.  Portuguese sailors later established a small post here for their trans-Indian routes in the 1500s.  After a brief settlement by the Dutch in the 1600s, the French colonized the island in 1715 and began developing its prosperous sugar cane production here.  The British eventually took over Mauritius during the Napoleonic Wars in 1810 and Mauritius attained independence in 1968.

Mauritian Demographic History

One of the most distinguishing historical factors during this last period of British rule, was the abolishment of slavery in 1835.  To compensate for their "loss of slaves" they had forcibly brought from the continent and nearby Madagascar, the European land-owners brought in indentured laborers from India in mass numbers to primarily work in the sugar cane fields.  By the early 1920s, more than half a million Indian indentured laborers were working on the island, many of whom stayed on and became Mauritian citizens after independence.

As such, present-day Mauritian society (around 1.3 million) are predominantly descendents from India, the African continent (commonly referred to as Creoles), France and China.  The common language of communication is Mauritian Creole, while French and English are also widely spoken.  More than half the population practice Hinduism as their religion.

(Indian textile workers in a Mauritian sweatshop)(Indian textile workers in a Mauritian sweatshop)

Its economy, while still very dependent on sugar production (around 25%), has expanded to include tourism (Mauritius enjoys a worldwide reputation as an island paradise), textile or garment production, and more recently information technology.

New Migrant Workers

What is not often internationally-noted however, is that there is an estimated 30,000 new "foreign" (migrant) workers primarily in the labor-heavy textile industry, as well as in construction due to the booming tourism sector.  The workers, 3/4 of whom are women, come primarily from India, China, Bangladesh and Nepal.  According to Radha Krishna Sadien, the President of Government Services Employees Association or GSA (the largest national union), these workers are heavily exploited and work essentially as indentured servants in poor conditions and live in even worse dormitories.

Recent international reports (including a particularly contentious report by Amnesty International) describe migrant workers working in conditions akin to "modern slavery", having to pay up to $3000 to recruiting agencies while making around $0.50/hour or less than $200 a month, being cheated by their contracts and employers, living in cramped and unhygienic conditions (ex: 18 bunkbeds in 1 dormitory shared by 36 workers in shifts) and facing intimidation and violence when they try to organize.

(migrant Indian workers protest in front of Mauritian parliament)(migrant Indian workers protest in front of Mauritian parliament)

This is refuted by Shakeel Mohamad, the Mauritian Minister of Labor, who states that while there have been "incidents" of unequal treatment of foreign workers, a new law that came into force on January 27, would at least establish a minimum standard of accommodation.  He did acknowledge that most employers were still not complying a week before it was to come into effect, and if an employer were found not to comply later, they would only receive a nominal fine, while the worker's contract would be cancelled and they would be deported, in effect punishing the victim.

Still, Mr. Mohamad insists that the foreign workers enjoy equal treatment and have the right to organize.  Mr. Sadien asserts however that very few migrant workers are unionized because they do not speak the local languages and have very little access to information, being dependent on their employer for everything from food, shelter and of course minimal wages.

Brainstorm Meeting for GFMD 2012

The brainstorm meetings themselves did not prove to facilitate much "brainstorming."  The draft concept paper previously circulated by Mr. Mansoor was presented and discussed, and presumably some inputs would be incorporated into the next revision, which is slated for presentation to the Friends of the Forum in early February.  However, no major edits or radically new ideas were brought forward.

While there are once again, roundtables and themes dedicated to protections and rights (most notably a particular session on migrant domestic workers), it is obvious that the emphasis is on development and circular migration.  This was further reflected by the opening remarks of Mr. Mohamad, highlighting the need for countries to think seriously about expediting the movement of labor and to "explore the full development potential of migration."

A tense moment between a union representative and the Chinese embassy officials provided the only "spicy" moment during the meeting.  The union rep had underlined the need for this year's GFMD to address the poor conditions endured by migrant workers including in Mauritius, and the responsibility of governments to provide basic standards of protections.  He went on to give the example of the unwillingness of the local Chinese officials to even accept complaints from Chinese workers, some of whom were deported for their organizing attempts, including a strike in 2008.  The Chinese official immediately refuted that by saying that the embassy's public hours are posted on its website and anyone can always lodge a complaint.  The tension passed quickly when meeting chair, John Bingham stressed that bilateral issues should be taken up outside of the meeting.  Undoubtedly however, such challenges will emerge more prevalently this year and can only enhance the GFMD's effectiveness to tackle real migration issues.

The GFMD with an "African Flavor"

(Author at lunch with African and African diaspora civil society)(Author at lunch with African and African diaspora civil society)Another critical theme during the meeting, was the need for this year's GFMD to bring a distinct "African Flavor."  This was in reflection of the limited number of African participants in previous GFMDs and the first time it will be hosted in the continent.  Meeting participants from all sectors voiced support for a GFMD that focussed on the particularities of migration and development in Africa and that experienced by African diaspora.

Following that, Ram Nookadee, the Secretary of the Mauritius Council of Social Services (MACOSS), who was identified by Mr. Mansoor as a key Mauritian civil society actor who will play a significant role this year, conveyed his vision of a Mauritian national civil society process, followed by one for SADC (Southern Africa Development Community) countries.

The African Road to Mauritius

Also joining me at this meeting were Milka Isinta and Badara Ndiaye from the Pan-African Network in Defense of Migrants Rights (PANiDMR), one of MRI's main partners in the continent.  They also chimed in on the need for a specific Africa process, especially one that brought to light the human rights violations endured by African migrants throughout the migration process, the lack of sustainable development processes, and the exploitation of African migrant labor in Europe and elsewhere around the world.

PANiDMR has taken up the task to begin its own "Road to Mauritius", with a continental process that is expected to kickoff in Accra, Ghana in a couple of months.  This follows PANiDMR's long road to get here, beginning with the 2008 GFMD and People's Global Action on Migration, Development and Human Rights (PGA) in Manila, where the MRI-organized Africa Caucus undertook the task to create the first continental-wide network for migrants rights, that is now the PANiDMR.

(View departing Mauritius)(View departing Mauritius)Peering out the airplane window again as my flight departed Port Louis, I knew that for us to return to Mauritius with any substantive advancement of migrants rights in November, we would first have to begin in Accra.  It requires us first and foremost strongly supporting PANiDMR's leadership, and how it maps out its own Road to Mauritius.