There are 40,000 migrants working in Mauritius, with a large majority of them working in the manufacturing sector. Other sectors with strong migrant worker participation include construction, the hotel and tourism sectors and the bakery industry.
Firemount Textiles in Goodlands, northern Mauritius, employs 2,000 foreign workers while 1,500 of their employees are locals. “We are happy with our foreign workers as they help us to deliver [our products] on time,” says one of the company’s directors.
“We are expanding our factory and we need more labour, about 1000 more workers, and while our priority is to hire locals, as government guidelines say at least 50% of our employees should be local, there are not many locals interested in this type of work. We believe Mauritians prefer to work in the public sector because of job security,” says the director.
Other managers in the industry say that several campaigns to recruit locals carried out through posters in towns and villages and adverts in local papers failed to produce results. As a result, the textile industry, one of the five pillars of the Mauritian economy along with sugar, tourism, offshore financial services and ICT, faces a difficult situation.
The lack of available local labour affects other Mauritian sectors and businesses, a problem that local bakery owner Sabeer Hookoomally has had first-hand experience with. Indeed, without a dozen factory workers from Bangladesh, Hookoomally would have been forced to close his bakery.
Hookoomally pays for their air-tickets, lodging and accommodation, food and inland transport above the normal wages. “Locals do not turn up for work most of the time and it was very hard to keep the factory running. Today, thanks to my migrant workers, people are having their bread every day,” he says.
Even though local employees are skilled and capable of working, many are not happy with the anti-social hours, long workdays and insecurity that come with jobs in the services and manufacturing sector. Hiring locally, therefore, is a difficult task. And for foreigners in Mauritius, the opportunities are great: “Unlike Mauritians, foreign workers invest themselves in their work to be able earn more money that they can send back home,” says Feisal Ally Beegun, a trade unionist who has been championing the cause of migrant workers on the island for 20 years.
Kamaluddin, a Bangladeshi working for the past four years in a textile factory, says: “I am ready to work more overtime, and if they can increase my wages I can send more back home,” he said. As one of his colleagues, Zhou Wan Li, says: “We are here to work and make money. We have not come to stay here but to work and go back home with our money.”
Mauritius cannot afford to exclude foreign workers if it expects to continue with the strong economic development that it has enjoyed for some time. According to the World Bank, the economy of Mauritius grew by 3.6% in 2014.
Increasingly, investors are bringing in labour from abroad. In a report published in March 2016, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) pointed out that increased female labour participation and immigration of skilled workers would help mitigate the impact on growth of the projected decline in the labour force. At the Mauritius Export Association (MEXA) in Port-Louis, Lilowtee Rajmun, the director, says that had it not been for the foreign workers, the manufacturing sector would have collapsed a while back.
“This is a normal thing when we compare the economy of the island in the 80s and now, 35 years down the road. It has progressed and changed a lot, the society as well has changed with the economy. We hire foreigners because we do not find the locals,” she says.
“We can pay the locals more but the discipline, the rigour, the productivity, the efficiency and the performance needs to stay. Foreign workers are the backbone of the island’s export sector. We cannot do without them,” she continues.
Eric Ng Ping Cheun, an economist at consultancy firm PluriConseil based in France says: “We just cannot reduce the unemployment rate in the island by reducing the number of foreign workers. “With development and the evolution of our society, our compatriots are looking for better comfort in life.
“They are therefore not ready to sacrifice their family life and their leisure time for work. If we send back the foreigners to their country, the enterprises would not be profitable and many of them will be forced to close down,” he says.
Expertise and efficiency
Migrant workers have certainly made the Mauritian export-oriented manufacturing sector more competitive. Their expertise and skills and their efficiency at work are an essential plus-value for the economy of an island that is looking for improved growth.