Challenges ahead for workers in Fiji

One of the world’s longest running strikes is happening in Fiji. Members of the Fiji Mine Workers Union (FMWU) in Vatukoula have been on strike for 21 years. While making a submissions to the Constitution Commission last month (Fiji is likely to get a new constitution –the nation’s fourth- next year) FMWU president Josefa Sadreu said no solution to the dispute had been reached since the government promised one in 2007.

“The reason we are making these submissions to the commission is because in 2007, when the current government took over, we were promised resolution of our strike…at a meeting held at the Fiji Human Rights Commission on 23rd April 2007,”

At that meeting, just five months after Commodore Frank Bainimarama ceased power in a military coup the future was looking uncertain for the Fijian labour movement. The history of Fiji, used by the British Empire as a sugar cane plantation worked by indentured Indian labourers, meant the island nation developed a much stronger organised labour movement than other Polynesian nations where pre-capitalist systems of production persisted.

Strikes were a large part of the independence struggle and the labour movement has come the closest to ending the segregated parliament that still exists as a legacy of colonialism. 46 of the 71 seats in parliament are ‘communal’ electorates in which voters vote according to their ethnicity. The electorates are based on provinces, not population distribution, leading to further inequality of representation.

The Fijian Labour Party, backed by the unions, was the only multi-ethnic party until recent years, and twice almost came to power. The first Labour Party government, led by Dr Timoci Bavadra, was ousted by the Sitiveni Rabuka led coup in 1987, and the second elected Labour Party government led by Mahendra Chaudhry was ousted by the George Speight coup in 2000.

While those coups were for the preservation of the status quo- power remaining in the hands of Ethnic Fijian elites- the 2006 coup was different. With the new regime pledging to end segregated voting system and instituting one person one vote. Josefa Sadreu must have felt hopeful at that 2007 meeting when it appeared that things were going to be changing.

Unfortunately, the mistreatment of the labour movement by the Bainimarama regime extends to much more than the abandonment of Vatukoula’s mine workers. Human Rights Watch has listed highlighted the following cases:

On November 4, 2011, the police arrested Felix Anthony, National Secretary of the Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC). This arrest followed the October arrest of FTUC president Daniel Urai. On November 7, Urai was officially charged with “inciting political violence by urging to overthrow government.” Urai was released on bail and Anthony was released without charge, following an international campaign urging their release. Both union leaders, who were also members of parliament for the Labour Party, were banned from travelling outside Fiji, and Urai was subject to a curfew that restricts his freedom of movement within Fiji.

The military had previously detained Anthony on February 12, 2011. According to trade union officials, military officers took Anthony from his home to military barracks in Lautoka, where he was interrogated as to whether he knew of any attempts to overthrow the government and whether he supported the current regime. On February 18, military officers told Felix Anthony to meet the prime minister at a sugar mill in Ba, together with two other union officials. Following the meeting with the Prime Minister, the military officers beat the union officials for roughly two hours. The union officials were ordered to drive to Namaka military camp and were reported to have been beaten again by military officers for roughly another two hours.

On June 22, 2011, immediately following the 100th International Labor Conference, two military officers allegedly beat the president of the Fiji Sugar and General Workers Union – Ba Branch. The officers demanded that he submit his resignation from the union by 3 p.m. the next day and threatened further abuse.

If the current regime keeps its promises, instituting one person one vote and holding an election in 2014, the way forward for Fiji’s workers may not be as easy as electing a Labour Party government. Felix Anthony has publicly stated that the party has lost its direction. In a statement, Anthony said he walked out of a Labour Party Delegates Conference held last month in frustration over the practices and operations of the party which he believes are the total opposite to the principles of democracy the party preaches.

According to Fiji Live he said it is with extreme sadness to witness the party losing its direction under the draconian leadership of its leader and in the current climate the union movement and workers in Fiji will face even greater challenges to their very existence.

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