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)|
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|
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.