Fijian workers face world’s worst labour violations

By Jeff Vogt

 

This week the ILO named Fiji as one of five countries where the core labour standard of freedom of association is most seriously violated.

The other four countries – out of a list of 32 cases examined – are Argentina, Cambodia, Ethiopia and Peru.

Last September, the Fijian regime expelled an ILO mission that was visiting the country to verify complaints of labour violations issued by local trade unions.

Fijian military commander Commodore Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama (Photo TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images)

The Governing Body of the ILO, which represents governments, workers and employers from around the world, issued a stinging rebuke of the regime’s conduct through a tripartite resolution.

The Government was asked to “to rapidly discuss the return of an ILO Direct Contacts Mission to the country” and undertake independent investigations without further delay into the allegations of “physical assault, harassment and intimidation of trade union leaders and members”.

But, the anti-union agenda of the Fijian dictatorship is no news in Fiji.

In December 2006, Commodore Frank Bainamarama came to power through a military coup.

Since then, the regime has dictated numerous highly repressive decrees that sharply curtail civil and political rights of its citizens, and specifically reduce or eliminate the fundamental rights of workers.

The majority of the workforce is employed in tourism and agriculture, especially in the sugar industry.

In 2011, the regime ratcheted up its attack on trade unionists, by militarising sugar mills, beatings trade union leaders and through constant surveillance and harassment by the police – including baseless arrests and prosecutions.

“We have had military presence within sugar mills, that actually disciplined and intimidated workers, making sure that there was no trade union activity in the workplace, and unions were not allowed to take any grievances to the employers,” said Felix Anthony, National Secretary of the Fiji Trades Union Congress.

That is why during the last International Labour Conference in June, the ILO expressed its “deep concern at the numerous acts of assault, harassment, intimidation and arrest of trade union leaders and members for their exercise of the right to freedom of association.”

Until repealed on January 7, 2012, the Public Emergency Regulations (PER) of 2009 gave unchecked powers to the regime to ban much public assembly in Fiji.

The recently adopted Public Order (Amendment) Decree of 2012 is in many respects worse than the Public Emergency Regulations of 2009.

It creates an expansive definition of “terrorism”, with severe penalties, which could be interpreted to cover just about any organised opposition to the military regime.

As before, requests for public meetings will need to be approved by the regime, with seven days’ notice required to seek permission to hold a meeting.

Although the government argues that it has suspended that provision of the POAD, police have recently interrupted and halted a number of meetings where they were not allowed to listen in.

Fiji’s courts were also divested of jurisdiction to hear any claim challenging any decision by the Prime Minister, police commanders or any public official.

The regime issued several decrees that sharply curtail fundamental labour rights in both the public and private sectors.

Some of the decrees also eliminate all access to judicial review and redress for past, present and future violations of those rights or to question the legality of the decrees themselves.

These sweeping reforms were made without any prior consultation with the relevant trade unions.

These decrees include the Employment Relations Amendment Decree of 2011 and the Essential National Industries Decree of 2011. The first amended the Employment Relations Promulgation (ERP) of 2007 to exclude all public service workers from its coverage.

Roughly 15,000 workers in Fiji’s public service lost the fundamental labour as a result. It also prohibited public service workers and their unions from taking any claim under the ERP before any tribunal.

The latter decree provided that all companies in the finance, telecoms, civil aviation and public utilities sectors were “essential”.

Under the decree, collective bargaining agreements were torn up and some local unions were completely eliminated.  The law also prohibited in practice existing unions from representing their members in bargaining.

These measures, as well as the elimination of dues deductions in the public sector and in essential industries, have struck a severe blow to workers’ rights and their institutions.

Indeed, the continuing effects of last year’s Essential National Industry Decree (ENID) are having a devastating and potentially irreversible impact on workers, who have seen hard fought for gains in the workplace stripped away.

Unions are also seeing the collapse of their membership base and their finances.

 

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