Felix Anthony and Australia’s Transport Workers Union: Defence of a Basic Right for Some — or the Devil Take the Rest?


The photo that speaks for itself: (L-R), Mara, Urai, Anthony, Rajendra Chaudhry (Coup4.5)
What has  Felix Anthony, national secretary of the Fiji Trade Unions Council, been telling his Australian counterparts? 


Australian Transport Workers Union official Tony Sheldon is calling for industrial action against Qantas and Jetstar Fiji-bound flights on the strength of what he supposes might be under a decree that its still in draft. They are getting all excited about something that might never happen.  Anthony appears to have got hold of a leaked  draft decree that could sit around for years and not be acted on. It is certainly  not high on government's priority list. But already the TWU, thanks to Anthony, is threatening union action and warning Australian holidaymakers against travelling to Fiji.
 
The  draft Employment Relations Amendment Decree (that Skeldon misnames the Vital National Industries Decree, thereby hinting at its leaked and draft status) will apparently  require unions in the “vital” airline and sugar industries to re-register and all officer bearers will need to be employees in the industry in the industry. In other words, workplace union representatives, once called shop stewards, will replace outside professional unionists like Felix Anthony.  
 
In an earlier posting (click here), having been alerted to the draft thanks to anti-government bloggers,  I criticised the proposed decree, while at the same time recognizing the need, given past union actions,  to de-politicise unionism in these two industries so essential to the Fiji economy as a whole. 

And that, essentially, is what the decree is about: depoliticising essential industries. Its possible impact on union freedoms in the workplace is incidental, and may not occur if government and the unions put their heads together. Unfortunately, Anthony's actions will make this more difficult.

This is what I wrote about what I knew of the draft decree a few weeks ago:
Nationally, it is a direct threat to organized labour and in individual workplaces it will expose the union representative, an employee, to possible employer reprisals.
Government's intentions are clear and understandable. It attributes past airport and sugar mill disruptions to outside professional unionists also wearing political hats (and there is certainly some evidence of this) and sabotage was suspected in one sugar mill breakdown. These are industries vital to the nation's economy. 
But the proposed decree, which will put employees in these industries on a par with the police and military, puts legitimate worker rights in jeopardy. It's like using a pneumatic sledgehammer to crack a coconut … The Decree will make any organization or person which fails to comply liable to a fine of up to $50,000 or a jail term of up to five years. 
TWU's Tony Sheldon
The TWU is aiming to halt or disrupt Qantas and Jetstar travel on Fiji routes  ”unless military-government sanctioned violence and harassment, including physical bashings and threats, towards Fijian trade unionists ceases.”  Sheldon says Government “now want to smash the basic-human right of getting a fair wage for employees and their families."
 
He claims the  new decree “will see wages drop significantly across the airline and sugar industry” and cites the case of a baggage handler who presently earns $290 a week and up to $380 with overtimes and penalty rates, being reduced to a weekly pay packet of $170.  

The new decree has nothing to do with wages and only Anthony, knowing this,  could have supplied him with these figures.
 
Anthony also told media that “the decrees”  have substantially weakened unions, and spoke of  “Decree Number 21 which was imposed just a few weeks ago where workers in the public sector have been totally disenfranchised of any rights at all, including the most fundamental rights.”  

He couldn’t be more wrong.   Decree 21, passed in 2009, is an amendment to the Income Tax Act.   It has nothing to do with workers’ rights, but if he got this wrong, or was misquoted (and not corrected by Coup 4.5 that published the story) and really meant the Employment Relations Amendment Decree, it is a gross and misleading statement for three reasons:

Wrong on three counts 
 
First, the draft proposed Employment Relations decree only applies to two highly organized industries, where it limits the rights of outside union organisers. Neither they nor their workers are “totally disenfranchised” with “no rights at all.” Whether this will also limit their rights, wages and working conditions inside the industry, can only be a matter of conjecture, but there is no particular reason to suppose it will.
 
Secondly,  the proposed draft does not affect workers in other industries about whom Felix Anthony has expressed no concern.  This is especially surprising because the union members they seek to protect are, by Fiji standards, among the best paid  of industrial workers (it is these workers who pay the professional unionists’ salaries, that Anthony may lose if the decree is implemented), while those about whom Anthony and the TWU do not speak, such as textile workers, are among the worst.  
 
Most of these workers are women who are often the sole breadwinners in their families. Thanks to the recent minimum wage regulations passed by this supposedly anti-worker government, their hourly weekly wages have increased to $1.60 – 1.90, or $72-85 a week, depending on skill. 

Put another way, it is less than one-half of what the supposedly lowered $170 wages predicted by Anthony if the Employment Relations Decree is passed.  If “United We Stand” still means anything in the Labour Movement, one would expect some solidarity with their less fortunate brothers and sisters. 
 
Finally, Anthony has obviously not told the Australian unionists about the many  pro-poor measures taken by the Bainimarama government. This blog has provided details of these measures in postings dating back over two years.  They include minimum wages,  already mentioned, the lifting of VAT on basic food items, squatter assistance and relocation, the Housing Authority rehabilitation loans and their $10,000 assistance grant, more liberal family assistance for needy families, the cap on school fees, free school textbooks, free and subsidised bus fares for school children and the elderly, micro-credit and small business loans,  work to empower poor women (think poultry farming,  handicrafts, sewing machines, marketing,) and in rural areas the fairer distribution of land lease money, the land bank, agricultural assistance,  emphasis on food security, and infrastructural expenditure on roads, bridges and wharves to speed rural produce to markets and make visits to hospitals less expensive. 
 
The Bainimarama government should invite  the Australia’s  TWU Tony Sheldon to Fiji, all expenses paid,  so that he does not have to rely on the word of Felix Anthony and other professional unionists such as Dan Urai and Rajeshwar Singh, and while in Fiji Sheldon would do well to talk to the many thousands who in some way have benefited from Government’s pro-poor measures.  They are not enough, of course, but they are far more than has been done by the previous Qarase SDL government, or even the earlier Chaudhry FLP-led government that these unionists support.  
 
They have a case, and it should be heard, but in a Fiji setting,  the airline, sugar —and public service— workers they represent are well off compared to most workers, and far better off than the unemployed. They should ask whether the action they want their Australian counterparts to take will really hurt the “military government” as they claim and protect their interests as they want, or whether  those who will be most hurt are less advantaged workers, the unemployed, and Fiji’s urban and rural poor. 

Improved living standards need a stronger economy, not one further weakened by the kind of industrial action they seek.
 
Sheldon says he fears for the safety of Anthony, Urai and Singh when they return to Fiji.  They should be fine unless, given the precarious state of the economy and the emergency regulations that are still in place, someone sees what they have done in encouraging Australian union action as industrial and national sabotage against Fiji.  

One has to ask how much their actions are prompted by union, and how much by political, concerns? Saturday's photo of unionists Anthony and Urai, sitting together with Ratu Tevita Mara and Rajesh Chaudhry (Mahendra's son) at a rally in Sydney organized by the Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement certainly raises questions about the Fiji unionists' political motivations.
 
Here is the link, courtesy of Coup4.5 to the WTU resolution on Fiji.
NZ Herald-Sun article Sunday 17.7.11

After writing this, I received this email from an Australian friend. It speaks for itself.

ABC TV News tonight had a terribly damaging report warning prospective Fiji holidaymakers of disruption to both Qantas and Jetstar flights. It showed the lamentable Felix Anthony with TWU members at Sydney Airport  and an interview with Anthony claiming that union officials in Fiji had been beaten and hit with rubber sticks.



How can this kind of thing do anything but hurt ordinary Fijians? Miserable bastards. 

 

Comments

Anonymous said…
Give beggars a horse and they'll ride to the devil.
Under Pressure said…
"They are getting all excited about something that might never happen."

On the other hand if they wait for the decree to be promulgated it will be too late as decrees cannot be challenged in the court or criticised in the media.

As they can't challenge the decree in the courts the only thing left to the unions is industrial action overseas.

Added to which Felix Anthony has found that to say anything but yes to this regime leads to a beating.

The Government cannot have it both ways. It cannot remove the ability to challenge their decrees and then complain when someone uses a far stronger challenge than one that would have been allowed by the courts.
Delusion of Grandeur said…
Better the devil you know, than the ones you don't, better still not knowing this lot. The body language says it all - LOSERS!
Neophyte Nerds said…
Well, it all depends upon whether the horse was paid for by public money or privately donated? Anyone who pushes ordinary Fijians into poverty, who demeans them by bringing about their loss of work, or who further coerces them, will achieve our utmost ire and indefinite contempt.

None of these Unionists to our knowledge has had to grovel for a job or.....a PENSION? They have eked out their cosseted lives on Boards of Directors remunerated in the main by the Fijian ordinary taxpayer. Insured and covered with freebie and 'taxpayer trips' overseas, they now cavort with their Aussie counterparts and dream up further plans and plots for mayhem. This is intolerable and callous nonsense.

Is it not enough for them that Fijian pensions are now threatened with cuts within three months? That such cuts will feed negatively into the Fijian Economy and bring about the opposite of quantative easing: rising costs, less cash in circulation and more hungry Fijian families as jobs are cut?

These seasoned unionists with their neophyte political allies, seeking a new life for themselves on the backs of confused and frustrated Fijians of all walks of life, can "Go Hang". Like all those who preceded them, they have no interest other than THEIR OWN SELF INTEREST. We would agree completely with your sentiment, Croz.
Anonymous said…
Felix just like Mara, Mahen and others supported the coup and benefitted from it. They should all now shut up. They created and supported this government.
Under Pressure said…
@Neophyte Nerds

“Anyone who pushes ordinary Fijians into poverty, who demeans them by bringing about their loss of work, or who further coerces them, will achieve our utmost ire and indefinite contempt.”

If you substitute Government ministers for these Unionists your posting reads equally and equally true.

@ Anonymous
“Felix just like Mara, Mahen and others supported the coup and benefitted from it. They should all now shut up. They created and supported this government.”

Perhaps they have realized their mistakes and are doing their best to rectify them.
Public money polished their boots said…
@ Under Pressure.....

Take on pensioners and those who are about to become pensioners and the workforce and taxpayers in any country in the world and you have bitten off more than you can chew. Unionists are expected to throw their considerable weight in the direction of the oppressed and voiceless. What benefit do they expect to achieve other than economic devastation? If they believe that they will be able to recreate the wilderness they plan, they are dreaming. And these people are by no measure of the imagination 'beggars'. They have always seen themselves taken care of: no matter which cockerel rules the roost. It is public money that has polished their boots.
Under Pressure said…
I say this to your friend in Australia.
'with Anthony claiming that union officials in Fiji had been beaten and hit with rubber sticks."

Perhaps the miserable bastards are the one who ordered the beating of Anthony in the first place.

If we were allowed to discuss our problems openly like grown ups the government would not have to resort to beatings and the unions to industrial action.
Answering to the Public who paid you........ said…
@ Under Pressure and more:

Take time tonight at 0100 to watch Rupert Murdoch and his son James and their associated executives face questions by a House Committee of the UK Parliament. That will be pressure indeed. That is what so many of us require now in Fiji. Except: there is no House - it has been abrogated. Like our constitutions - gone away. But.....not for good! The basic and fundamental rights of a people NEVER go away for good. They wait in the wings to be reborn like the Phoenix.

How the "horse is ridden" will be a manifestation indeed. Two Senior London Metropolitan Police Officers - gone already. Brought down because things that are intolerable were "done on their watch". That is accountability at work. They were paid by Public Money. They answer to the public who paid them. Ultimately, that is the ONLY TEST.

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