Fijian sugar workers face threats, intimidation

fiji sugar workers

Workers at the state owned Fijian Sugar Corporation (FSC) have voted to take strike action after they were offered a 5.3% pay rise. This equates to just $7.10 a week after tax, or in terms of purchasing power, enough to buy half a chicken. The bigger issue though is that wages for sugar workers in Fiji have declined 40% since 2006 when the government was deposed by a military coup.

The Lautoka sugar mill workers, who crush sugarcane to extract sugar, have also been impacted by a decline in the country’s sugar crop over this time, from 3.8 million tons to 1.6million tons annually, resulting in less weeks of work each year, in some cases people were without work for eight months of the year. The Fiji Sugar and General Workers Union (FS&GWU) had been demanding a wage review for two years.

Just days before the vote to take strike action, a worker was fatally injured on the job. Samuel Sigatokacake was admitted to Lautoka Hospital ICU Unit with burns covering over 50% of his body. The accident occurred when the support structure of an evaporator gave way, pouring extremely hot water onto the factory floor. Further investigation found the release valve on the vessel, which stored water at high pressure, had not functioned since 2010. The vessel itself was in very poor condition with corrosions found on the inside. Earlier that same week it had l burst through the cracks in the welding, but cracks were re-welded and operations continued as normal. The union has since made a Criminal Negligence complaint.

The management of the mill have intimidated workers, some requiring them to fill in a form indicating if they were going on strike. Others were threatened with termination if they took industrial action. Almost a third of the 770 workers did not vote in the secret ballot, likely a result of this intimidation, but of those who voted 90% were in favour of strike action. Management has also offered five year contracts to retired workers to take on the work of the strikers, and threatened to bring in workers from overseas to replace them.

Fiji’s Attorney General and Minister for Industry and Trade Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum urged workers not to go on strike “We [the government] have made a substantial investment to rescue the industry from collapse. This investment has begun to turn around the Fiji Sugar Corporation, without a single job being lost, and it is in the national interest for this to continue.” Of course, workers have seen little benefit from this investment, instead they have seen seven years of declining wages.

“It is a sad indictment on the Regime where the workers real wage is allowed to decline by more than 40% forcing workers into extreme poverty.” Said union president Daniel Urai “Workers deserve recognition from this Regime in the development of the Sugar Industry and indeed in all other industries in this country. Workers create the wealth and sustain the economy despite the hardship, intimidation and the bullying by the authorities and they deserve better.”

On August 21st two truckloads of military officers today drove into Lautoka. Workers were warned that should they go on strike they would not be allowed to return to work and would be dealt with by the military. As we go to press no industrial action has yet occurred and the company continues to refuse to negotiate with the union. Unions in New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere have expressed solidarity with the sugar workers and condemned the actions of the regime. Sugar is Fiji’s largest industry, with sugar processing making up a third of industrial production in the country.

Papua New Guinea may pull out of trade agreement

Byron Clark, Fightback coordinating editor

Richard Maru

Richard Maru

Papua New Guinea (PNG) looks likely to pull out of the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER), the trade agreement between Australia, New Zealand and the island nations of the Pacific. This comes as the latest round of talks for ‘PACER Plus’ a new pact aiming to replace the current PACER agreement, have failed to secure key demands of Pacific nations, such as labour mobility in the region.

PNG Trade Minister Richard Maru has stated he would prefer to focus on strengthening the Melanesian Spearhead Group Trade Agreement, a sub-regional preferential trade agreement which includes PNG, Vanuatu, The Solomon Islands and Fiji. Excluding Australia and New Zealand the MSG bloc includes over 90% of the Pacific population.

Maru has described the PACER agreement as “a waste of time”

“Right now if we enter into such an arrangement it will be one sided all the goods will be coming from Australia and New Zealand into the Pacific market. At the moment we are not really doing much trading with Australia and New Zealand. We can’t even sell taro there, we have no capacity to sell our greens it’s all one sided traffic so what’s the point of going into a trading arrangement with Australia and New Zealand”.

Other Pacific leaders sympathise with PNG’s position. Solomon Islands Prime Minister, Gordon Darcy Lilo said “I don’t blame them for saying that… there is potential for much more meaningful trade cooperation within the Melanesian sub-regions of the Pacific”.  Fijian Minister for Trade Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum, told Radio Australia that Fiji sees a lot of merit in PNG’s position. Khaiyum has also spoken of the need to re-examine the Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement (PICTA) which includes Polynesia and Micronesia.

Adam Wolfenden & Maureen Penjueli of the Pacific Action Network on Globalisation (PANG) have suggested the Pacific region look to overseas examples such as The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) a trade agreement set up in South America by Venezuela under Hugo Chavez as an attempt at regional economic integration based on a vision of social welfare, bartering and mutual economic aid.

“Instead of pitting the countries against each other like PACER-Plus would, ALBA looks at ways that countries can help each other in the spirit of solidarity with guaranteed benefits for all those who participate…[A] far cry from what is currently on the table…PNG is right to want to walk away from PACER-Plus,”

The aims of the MSG trade agreement are not dissimilar to those of ALBA, the preamble for the agreement mentions “the overriding need to foster, accelerate and encourage the economic and social development of [Melanesian] States in order to improve the living standards of their peoples” and states that “the promotion of harmonious economic development … calls for effective economic cooperation”

This is unsurprising given one of the founding members of the Melanesian Spearhead Group was Walter Lini, the first Prime Minister of the Republic of Vanuatu, an advocate of “Melanesian socialism” who believed that the principles of socialism were inherently compatible with  Melanesian societies and customs.

Australian and New Zealand business interests, which have often used the Pacific region as a market for goods and a source of cheap labour, will likely be at odds with this growing regionalism in Melanesia, led by Papua New Guinea, a nation which has in recent years gained more control over its natural resources following decades of colonial and post-colonial exploitation. The people of the Pacific however are likely to benefit.

“Papua New Guinea is not boasting about its richness over the world in their resource abundance that they have.” Gordon Lilo told Radio Australia, “It is all about sharing the fortunes that they have for the development of a broader Melanesian region. And that is what we are getting out of it, a region that is committed to human development, and expansion of the space and the environment between the Melanesian region for all of our citizen to be able to prosper.”

Outcry over torture in Fiji, NZ hypocrisy

by Byron Clark

On March 15 protests took place in Auckland and Wellington against police brutality and torture in Fiji. While allegations of torture have cropped up in Fiji since the coup that put Bainimarama in power, the latest outcry follows the leaking of video depicting two handcuffed men being beaten by plain clothes police.

An editorial in the Fiji Times described the video as“[D]isturbing and shocking. It is gross, painful and will leave an indelible impression on all those who have witnessed it.” The father of one of the victims, Vueti Sanawa, a retired military officer said that in all his life as a soldier in the Middle East, he had never come across any torture such as that he witnessed of his son.

Amnesty International has called for an independent investigation, something Fiji’s ministry of information has promised. Justice seems unlikely though when Bainimarama has stated “I will stick by my men, by the police officers or anyone else that might be named in this investigation. We cannot discard them just because they’ve done their duty in looking after the security of this nation and making sure we sleep peacefully at night”

New Zealand political parties across the spectrum have been quick to join the condemnation of Fiji, a motion in parliament to do so was passed without dissent. While in and of its self this is a positive thing, it demonstrates the hypocrisy of many New Zealand politicians. When it comes to police brutality happening in neighbouring countries, latest Corruption and Crime Commission figures in Australia show that police brutality is increasing, up from 175 complaints in 2007 to of 201 complaints in 2012.

Police brutality in Australia is often directed at indigenous communities. Recently brutality at Sydney Mardi Gras drew parallel community protests in Sydney and Wellington (Aotearoa/NZ).

Amnesty International has noted another area where abuses in Australia are covertly tolerated by the government of Aotearoa/NZ, specifically the deal struck on asylum seekers;

“Amnesty International thinks that this move shows that another country is down the wrong path of refugee policy, and is taking these steps to deter refugees from seeking protection, rather than living up to its obligations under the Refugee Convention.” Amnesty International spokesperson Alex Paliaro told media.

Parliamentary censure of abuses is applied selectively, and has more to do with New Zealand’s imperialist interests – be it trade or military alliances – than it does with “human rights.”

Solomon Islands teachers’ strike- and win

Samson Faisi

Samson Faisi

Byron Clark
While Christchurch teachers planned their strike against school closures and the imposition of charter schools (later called off and replaced with a rally) 9,000 teachers in the Solomon islands took part in industrial action seeking unpaid wages.

Last year the government promised to increase teacher salaries with back pay for 2012, yet the required extra funding was not included in the 2013 budget- though money was allocated to give members of parliament a pay rise.

“It seems that there’s always money for them, but when it comes to these legitimate claims by unions, whether it be teachers, nurses, doctors or lawyers, they say they don’t have money for that.” Solomon Islands National Teachers Association (SINTA) president Sampson Faisi told Radio Australia

SINTA members went on strike indefinitely. Their industrial action was illegal, with the Trade Disputes Panel (TDP) ruling that teachers should call off the strike. Donald Marahari, legal counsel for the union, told media that members were aware of this but had decided to strike anyway.

Teachers risked six months imprisonment and large fines. Attorney General Billy Titiulu also stated that teachers involved in the strike would be denied benefits after they retire.

Teachers from the provinces converged on the capital Honiara, wearing red to show solidarity. “Unlike previous teacher strikes where there were differences, this one has seen a strong solidarity amongst teachers.” Faisi told the Solomon Star News.

Parents supported the strike and many of them turned out at the protest. One of those in attendance, Richard Watekari, said that as parents, they feel the teachers have the right to stand their ground.

It took just one week for the government to give in. After two days of intensive negotiations a consent order was signed stating that the government would fulfil its promises to the teachers and settle all outstanding claims. The agreement also ensured no teachers participating in the industrial action would be penalised.

New opposition party formed in Fiji, regime tightens strings

Felix Anthony

Felix Anthony

Byron Clark

After a conference in Nadi last month attended by more than 400 delegates from all affiliates of the Fijian Trade Union Congress (FTUC), Fiji’s trade unionists have begun forming a new political party. Felix Antony, secretary of the FTUC and a one time a Labour Party MP who left the party last year citing a lack of internal democracy told Radio Australia;

“The people of Fiji and the workers of Fiji have little choice and what we need really is a political voice that represents a cross section of people and more so the workers of Fiji. It’s really a necessity that drives the trade unions at this time to consider a political movement and a political party.”

Fiji’s union movement is the largest democratic organisation in the country and a truly multi-ethnic institution in a country where the legacy of colonialism has been ethnicity-based politics. The Labour Party, also founded by the FTUC and maintaining close links until recently, has been a multi-ethnic party but Anthony, who is Indian, believes that it has become an Indian party, and is now represented mainly by people from just one union, the National Farmers Union and colleagues of leader Mahendra Chaudhry.

Antony said that the meeting indicated the diversity of the union movement in Fiji; “we had a very good mix of union activists and office bearers present. In fact, unlike other political parties, there is no need for the trade union movement to pretend to be multi-racial. We’ve always been”

It’s not yet been decided if the new party will stand in the September 2014 elections announced by the interim government, or if it would cooperate with the other parties who are coordinating their approach to standing in the election. The union movement has been one of the strongest critics of the regime in Fiji.  [Read more…]