"Constant Beautiful Statements" Not Enough

Why I Resigned as Chair of the Wages Council 
Fr Kevin Barr
(Subheadings added by Editor.
Reply from the Minister and my comment added at the end.)

In 2008 I was persuaded to accept the position as independent Chair of the ten Wages Councils under the Ministry of Labour and Industrial Relations. When we began our work there had been no increases in worker’s wages for three years. 

Our first set of wage proposals was due to come into effect on the 1st Feb. 2009. Without any consultation the PM announced that, under pressure from a strong lobby of employers, he was deferring the Wage Regulation Orders to 1st July 2009. 

The second set of wage proposals was then set to come into effect on the 1st July 2010 but again was deferred for ten months until the 1st May 2011 and was reduced by 5%. All this was done without any consultation with me or the Wages Councils. 

In 2011 there were no meetings of the Wages Councils due to the stubborn determination of the Permanent Secretary  to have a formula which was unacceptable to all parties. The Wages Councils met in early 2012 and approved a set of Wage proposals to come into effect on the 15th August. Then again, without any consultation there was an announcement through the media that these wage increases had been deferred until 31st October and the Wages Councils would be asked to reconsider them because of objections raised by some employers.

When I heard the media announcement, I was outraged and angry and considered the lack of proper consultation most unacceptable. It showed no respect for me as Chair and no respect for the members of the Wages Councils who had worked so hard to reach consensus. Above all it showed no respect and no concern for the workers - the 60% of those in full-time employment who are covered by the Wages Councils.

Third deferment in three years
The recent deferment of the proposed wage increases was the third in three years. In other words every wage proposal made by the Wages Councils had been opposed by a small group of influential employers. What is worse government allowed this greedy and selfish group of employers to get their own way and crush the hopes and dreams of the workers of the country for modest wage increases to assist them cope with the rapidly increasing cost of living. The Ministry of Labour through the Wages Councils is supposed to be protecting the interests of the workers of the country. However others in government who allowed their buddies to influence them chose to obstruct the established process and called for delays and decreases.

The employers usual 'litany of woes'
In his detailed research report Just Wages in Fiji – Keeping Workers Out of Poverty (2006) Prof. Wadan Narsey looked back over 30 years of the operations of the Wages Councils and showed how employers had consistently managed to get their own way:
It was clear that most employer’s representatives resisted all proposals for wage increases, and they were quite successful in their attempts. The long term outcome was the severe deterioration in real wage rates and consequently a growth in poverty in the nation” (p. 77). Employers would cite “the usual litany of industrial woes, warn of redundancies and unemployment that high wage adjustments would cause and give a lower counter-proposal” (p.76). They would plead “inability to pay” or “this is not the right time”.

Nothing has changed and the same old scene gets played out year by year. The root cause of it all is greed and self-interest of a small lobby of employers who want to get their own way and pretend it is in the national interest. Moreover governments have allowed this to happen. 

Present government no better
And our present government is no different and actually is proving to be not only pro-investor but anti-worker. Some beautiful words have been spoken about concern for all citizens including the poor and marginalised and the need for social justice. But these words now seem like a lot of hot air to fool or silence the gullible.

In the recent budgets employers and investors have been given huge reductions in corporate tax and in personal income tax. In fact, as Peter Mazey said publicly on TV to his fellow employers “We got all we wanted in the 2012 Budget”. The ordinary people and the workers of the country got bugger all. Moreover workers unions have been emasculated and some union leaders have been bashed and imprisoned. This anti-worker stance is deplorable and has been criticised internationally.

Increased inequality cause for increased instability and anger
Not only is all this making for greater inequality, it also creates a cause for instability, dissatisfaction and anger. Those in government responsible for these strong pro-business and anti-union policies have themselves to blame.

In the current atmosphere of restrictions, workers and others are not free to protest against the way they are being treated. That is why I have decided to protest in their name by resigning.

My resignation as Chair of the Wages Councils is in protest 
  • (a) against the constant opposition to wage increases by a small lobby of selfish and greed employers and 
  • (b) against those in government who allow these employers to get their own way.
I also resigned as a member of the Poverty Alleviation committee in the Prime Minister’s Office because, if there is no concern for just wages for our workers who make up 60% of the population, there is no real commitment to poverty alleviation because wages are a key issue for the alleviation of poverty. 

Despite some good pro-poor programmes and constant beautiful statements there are no economic policies that touch the root causes of poverty. Rather many policies and constant deferments of wage increases are creating more poverty. All the fine words about poverty alleviation we hear over the radio and TV are nothing more than hot air unless there is positive, effective action.

A step towards justice
But I do not want my resignation to be seen negatively. I hope that it is a positive step to protest against injustice and make a stand for justice. I want those greedy and selfish employers to examine their consciences and act with decency and human concern for the needs of their workers. I also want government to break its attachment to the employer’s lobby and protect the interests of the workers of the country – to put the people first.

Some employers backtracked
I would also like to register my disappointment with a number of actors in the recent pro-employer/anti-union drama:
  • Munro Leys who sent out an alert to their clients encouraging them to protest against wage and meal increases;
  • Nesbitt Hazelman who gave assurances that there would be no opposition to the wage increases from the Fiji Employer’s and Commerce Federation yet goes ahead and registers his complaints;
  • The Garment industry which also gave assurances that they would not oppose the increases because they managed to get a fair hearing. Yet some of their members went ahead and wrote in opposition to the increases. Yet not so long ago in the media Kalpesh Solanki was boasting of huge new developments for the garment industry.
  • The Hotel and Tourist Industry and the Manufacturing Industry who hide their greed and selfishness behind so-called concerns about the “impact of wage increases on Fiji’s international competitiveness and the danger of redundancies for the nation”. Dixon Seeto and Patrick Wong claim that tourism is a billion dollar industry and that the number of tourists are constantly on the increase. If this is so, then why can’t the workers associated with the tourist industry be allowed a greater share of the profits through better wages. The national budget provides the tourism industry with $24m a year. Why do they complain about modest increases in the wages of their workers? Why do they have to run to their Minister to intervene and oppose wage increases like a pack of cry-babies? Wages and Labour issues are under the Minister for Labour. And when their representatives on the Wages Councils agree to increases in wages, why do they then come out in opposition?
A billion dollars transferred from wages to profits
In his research mentioned above Prof. Wadan Narsey says that, over the years “stolen wages” (as he terms the refusal to pay an adequate, just wage) have seriously benefited employers but seriously disadvantaged thousands of workers whose quality of life has deteriorated. Narsey claims that in the 30 years since Independence more than one billion Fijian dollars has been transferred from worker’s wages to employer’s profits mainly because the business lobby was exceedingly influential in the Wages Councils.

There is an unbelievable degree of exploitation of our workers in Fiji – not only in the area of wages but in other areas as well. I have listed all this elsewhere.

The work goes on
So, in resigning as Chair of the Wages Councils I do not wish to give up on the workers of our country. I will continue to speak out on their behalf and I hope that my resignation is seen as a protest against the injustices perpetrated on our workers. It is a stand against greed and selfishness and a lack of concern for needs of workers and their families. It is a stand for justice.

To all of those who say they read their Bibles I would like to remind them of these words in James (5:1-6):

Listen to the wages you kept back. They are calling out. Realize that the cries of the workers have reached the ears of the Lord God”. 

Ed. comment

The Minister's reply (click here) is plausible, but it does not explain why Fr Barr, as Chairman of the Wages Council, was not first informed of the decision to postpone the new awards.  Such a move would not only have been courteous; it would have made common sense.  Fr Barr clearly thinks the "process" complete. Employer representatives  had already been fully consulted, and most agreed with the new awards.  

But I do agree wth the Minister:  I hope Fr Barr will reconsider his decision to resign.  More than ever, the Wage Council needs him to defend worker interests.


What a pity said…
Oh what a pity. I wonder when Father Barr will finally work out that coups and dictatorships DO NOT bring prosperity? And certainly military juntas are NOT about supporting workers? It would appear he has backed the wrong horse? His achievements are summed up as follows..??..
Goodbye said…
The issue was that father Barr was never independant. You can't have a socialist as independant chair. It also highlights the danger of throwing your lot in with the dictactor. father Barr was 100% behind the coup and Frank but like so many he has fallen away. Campaign now all you like, it won't make a scap of difference now.
Fred said…
Fiji needs to stay competitive in a very adverse global economic climate and a very high (perceived) sovereign risk for foreign investors. Fr Barr needs to understand that while we all respect his stand against the government and for the workers, he has clearly committed a crime by inciting disaffection against our government. I do not agree that he should get back into the wage council. There are many highly qualified candidates and fresh blood is necessary to improve the communication between employers, the government and the workers and their representatives. Fr Barr should also acknowledge that senior leaders of this government have accepted salary freeze since 2007. Taking the 20% devaluation of the Fiji $ into consideration, even government ministers have less salary now than they had in 2007.
Ned Said said…
@ Fred - Salary frezes since 2007 ? The military have had many pay increases not to mention all thos promotions and medals. We have no idea what government ministers pay themselves but given the silence on the issue we can assume it is a whgole lot more than the past ministers and significantly more than their inflated military incomes. Anyone remember "no one in the RFMF will benefit from this coup"....maybe what h meant was "no low paid worker will benefit from the coup".
Croz Walsh said…
Some strange reasoning here. @Goodbye, why can't you have a socialist as an independent chairman? @Fred, Two points: the wage increase recommendations, reached in agreement with employer representatives, have been delayed, not abandoned, so the issue is not to do with the global economic climate or competitiveness. These issues have already been factored into the awards. Secondly, it may be tough on senior government leaders but it would be far tougher if they had to live on $40 a week. Taking 20%, or any other percentage, off people on $50,000 a year will not push them into poverty, but taking 20% off people earning $2000 a year must certainly will.

Anonymous said…
What responsibility does Father Barr accept for the current deteriorating state of workers conditions and the economy generally? He has openly been a military junta supporter?
Anonymous said…
As an employer we were given verbal assurances from the ministry that the increases were going to be implemented right up to the 15th August - the day of implementation. Computers were reindexed and wages prepared and then the awards were postponed. When minimum wages are increased all higher wages also need to be scaled up and all workers were informed of these increases.
To avoid the disappointment and justifiable frustration of the employees we decided to implement them anyway - but the way it has all been handled is farcical.
Power corrupts said…
After collecting a hefty and dubious backpay of $184,740, one would expected 'PM' Bainimarama to spare a thought for the poor but to no avail. Regime has clearly sold out to the business elite. Our overpaid "attorney general" Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum is always wining and dining rich businessmen. Regime is there to line its pockets first and foremost. It makes me angry that this useless and deceptive bunch is paid by our taxes. Six years in power and they have done virtually nothing for the poor. The old mob was definitely better than this one. The sooner we see the last of Khaiyum and Bainimarama, the better. They are all talk, no action. Can't stand their lies and hypocrisy anymore.
Fred said…
@ Power corrupts

What are you taking about? The pay back for the PM was necessary in order to remove liabilities from the government's books. And he deserved every penny of it. Every civil service anywhere in the world has such rules and provisions. Overpaid AG? How do you know how much senior leaders get paid? I believe what Croz said above: $ 50,000 can be such a lavish salary if you have to look after five or six ministerial portfolios. And as far as wining and dining is concerned, you actually sound a bit jealous for not being invited.
Anonymous said…
Another regime appointee who has lost faith...can we expect a public rubbishing and charges soon?
Power corrupts said…
@ Fred, desperate apologist of an illegal regime gone rogue, the feelings I have are not of jealously, but rage at the manner in which Fr Barr has been given the runaround, and the minimum wage issue has been shunted around by a regime bought off by the business elite. This regime is a living example of how power corrupts. But this is beyond the comprehension of a regime loyalist like you, even though Fr Barr has put the evidence before you, so I will put the matter to rest here by reiterating that this regime has definitely proven to be worse than the previous SDL mob, who could at least be held accountable.

The naysayers who were warning against the 2006 coup have been proven right; sorry you find this hard to swallow Fred.

Anonymous said…
just in case you weren't sending out a little flame.

Civil service, public and private organizations have "use it or loose it" policies regarding leave. I am absolutely sure that it would be no longer than 5 years. Common maximum no more than 3 years.

In Bainimarama's case, not possible, as he was on contract. Prior to signing a contract, his leave issue would have been addressed. I am convinced Frank's back pay is fraud. I can see Chaudhry smirking when Franky swallowed this.
Anonymous said…
Revalue the dollar by 5 %. Everybody in Fiji will benefit equally.

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