Wages Councils and Mr Hazelman

A Reply published by The Fiji Sun
Fr Kevin J. Barr

I was somewhat amused to see the remarks of Mr Nesbitt Hazelman in The Fiji Sun (25th June). They are a replay of an old worn out record by the CEO of the Fiji Commerce and Employer’s Federation (FCEF). The headline for the article should not have been “Wages Councils not Working” but “Wages Councils not Working as Mr Hazelman would like them to” i.e to the advantage of employers.

What seems to be forgotten (even by some employers) is that the Wages Councils are set up to protect the interests of the workers of the country – all of whom are currently earning wages below the poverty line. Of course the Wages Councils constantly try to be fair to employers and take due consideration of their views but they are there basically to protect the 60% of workers in the country who are in full-time employment.

The interests of employers and investors have been promoted in various forums. They were particularly promoted by the last two budgets where there were massive reductions in corporate taxes and the taxes of the high income earners. Moreover there have been many provisions to provide incentives and to assist various industries e.g. $23m for the tourism sector. Even Peter Mazey said publicly on TV to FCEF members: “We got all we wanted in the last budget”. Moreover because of crony capitalism a small group of employers are able to go to their friends in government to get their own way. Workers do not have that ability – particularly after the way Unions have been treated recently.

Of course what amused me most was to see that the CEO brings up all the old arguments against me and the Wages Councils. He constantly claims the chairman (me) is not independent. A couple of years ago the FCEF carried on a high level campaign to get rid of me. When I asked someone why some employers hate me so much, I was told: “It is because you are a strong voice for justice they have to contend with. You have the answers they don’t want to hear. They have been used to getting their own way for so long”. Be that as it may, my job has been to protect the interests of the workers of the country while being fair to employers. But it seems that some employers mis-interpret the work of the Wages Councils as though they are there to protect the interests only of employers – not the workers.

Mr Hazelman is quite wrong in saying that many wage increases were reached without a consensus – that is with the agreement of the employers – and that my casting vote ensures the employers are outvoted. In seven or eight of the ten wages councils the wage increase was reached by consensus, in two the employers were outvoted by the workers and independent representatives, and only in one did I have a casting vote – the first and only time I have used it. And I had to use it because the employers representatives came stating that their proposal was non-negotiable. No one’s proposal is non-negotiable in the context of the way we operate in the Wages Councils.

It is interesting that, although the legislation allows any employer who honestly can’t pay to go to the Minister and explain his/her position, no employer has ever done so because it implies that they should open their books for inspection and verification. So we presume they can pay.

Mention is made of the proposal to set up a Wages Commission to replace the ten Wages Councils. This may have some merit but I understand that it was imposed unilaterally by the Permanent Secretary for Labour in a recent ERAB meeting and that no discussion was allowed on the matter. Moreover there seems to have been no consultation with the Unions or other interested parties. Presumably the FCEF has agreed to or pushed for the proposal. So, in the current anti-Union and anti-worker atmosphere where crony capitalism is rampant, it is very doubtful if a Wages Commission will really protect the interests of workers in the country.

We talk about addressing corruption and tackling racism in the country but there is little incentive to tackle the exploitation of workers and increasing inequality even though the 1997 Poverty Report stated that “Fiji is a society with deep inequalities”.

For years the FCEF has been talking about “growth” in terms of providing more employment rather than having to pay decent wage increases. Yet study after study has repeated that addressing poverty in Fiji demands not simply more jobs but just and proper wages for those who are employed.

Again we hear the excuse that employers in Fiji have to compete with lower costs (including wages) in countries such as South East Asia. If employers want to pay Bangladeshi wages they should set up their businesses in Bangladesh. Wages are relative to the cost of living in any society and the Basic Needs Poverty Line in a country is considered to be the guideline for wages in that country. Wages are part of the cost of doing business not a handout to workers from what is left over after desired profits have been made. Business may be the engine of growth but it is the workers who keep the engine moving and workers need to be able to meet their basic needs.

We appreciate all those many employers who have a sense of social justice and recognise the basic needs of their workers. However, unfortunately, we need to fight against all those who exploit their workers and seek to make more and more profit out of selfish greed. These are often the “cry-babies” who blame the Wages Councils (and their chair) for wanting them to be accountable and so they run off to their friends in power to get their own way.

I guess this explains why the British PM David Cameron suggested at the World Economic Forum in Davos (2009) that capitalism worldwide needs to be overhauled and given a conscience to repair the damage done by decades of reckless greed “even if that means standing in the way of global corporate juggernauts”.


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