The ILO Visit Termination: Causes and Consequences

Weekend readings: • Allen Lockington • Ranjit Singh's home visit •Fr Barr's Trojan Horse • Croz on Christian State lacking numbers. 

Crosbie Walsh, with large inputs from two others. 


To understand the issues in dispute between the major Fiji trade unions, the ILO and the Government it is necessary to consider the 2011 Essential National Industries (Employment) Decree that started it all. 

I considered this decree at length in a posting last year titled  Why on Earth Did Government Need the Essential Industries Decree?  Click on the hyperlink to read.

 In the article I compared the 2011 Essential Industries  decree with the 2007 Employment Promulgation. I concluded the 2007 promulgation was sufficient for government's stated purposes, and criticized the Decree because it: 
 “weakens the collective bargaining power of workers by atomising labour organisation and weakening the national trade unions. It creates more opportunities for workers to leave unions than to join them; union fees are no longer automatically deducted from wages, and provisions exist for employers to call for the disestablishment of a union.
 "It curtails national unions access to workplaces and states that “all office-bearers, representatives, executives, and members of a union which represent workers employed by designated corporations must, at all times, be employees of the designated corporation.
"The Decree therefore isolates workers from national unions and places all “on the job” union representatives at the mercy of their employers. In such a situation, genuine, independent, collective bargaining and dispute resolution mechanisms are likely to be highly compromised." 
 My conclusion was that the Decree “more firmly endorsed neo-liberalism, the set of beliefs and practices that remove restrictions on capital and make it more difficult for workers to protect themselves as business and governments adjust to new technologies and trade relations.” 

 What should also have been stated was the animosity between individuals, notably Attar Singh, Felix Anthony and Daniel Urai, all I think FLP party members or supporters, and the political stance they had taken against the Bainimarama government, and the neo-liberal and pro-business stance of Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.  In “small societies” the individual factor is often a critical element. 

Moving forward a year and there are now three parties directly involved: the ILO, the 'big' Fiji trade unions and the Government. 

The ILO position 
ILO Director-General Juan Somavia had earlier condemned Fiji's Essential Industries Decree, saying it undermined freedom of association and the right of workers to withdraw their labour. I quote: 
 'Government's unilateral decision which puts a greater spotlight on the critical situation of freedom of association in Fiji and only fuels international solidarity with the Fiji Trade Unions Council (FTUC) and the Fiji Teachers' Association (FTA)'. 

The union position 
Not all unions were covered by the Essential Industries Decree. Those most affected were the Fiji Trade Union Congress and the Fiji Teachers' Union. Unable to challenge the Decree directly, the unions turned for support to the ACTU which in turn urged the Australian Labour government to place restrictions on Air Pacific and the Fiji tourism industry. 

This appeal has now been renewed, and taken further by a FTUC submission to the United States with respect to preferential access to the US market for Fiji produced goods, including tuna, stating that the Essential Industries Decree was affecting workers' rights and Fiji should not be granted preferential access (Fiji Times, 20/09). The FTUC appeal has been helped by some American unions. A trade union team and a government team will travel to the US to present their case. 

The Government position 
 If the US panel that has the power to end the duty free status for Fiji exports acts against Fiji, it will affect 39 Fijian exporters, including some of Fiji's biggest exporters like Fiji Water and PAFCO, and some 15,000 jobs could be threatened. Government and employers see the action of the union leaders in seeking support outside Fiji as working against Fiji workers and the country. 

The unions say Government gave them no alternative. The Essential Industries Decree was imposed without consultation. Government claims the Decree was directed against “a small clique of union leaders who were fighting labour reforms designed to return power to ordinary workers and expand job opportunities.” Some have called union leaders a “pampered clique of fat cats” who are more concerned about protecting their own interests than the interests of the workers. 

 The unions see the decree as a deliberate right-wing divide-and-rule attack on the country's labour movement that also runs counter to UN proclamations on worker rights. Government denies it is anti-union. “We are trying to protect the jobs of our citizens, not destroy them.” 

 Clearly, there is an ideological division on the proper role of trade unions, and as a consequence their status is in dispute. 

 Government also points to its record. Since it prevented FTUC access to Air Pacific, for example, the company has gone from strength to strength. In a tight and volatile market, not one job has been lost; a profit-sharing scheme has been introduced for the workers, and more jobs will be created with the introduction of new aircraft next year. The Government argument is that this was an airline that was about to go to the wall had the unions maintained what Government considers as their stranglehold. 

What prompted the ILO visit termination? 
From here in the facts are less clear. Some claim the ILO insisted on sticking to their own terms of reference, not the Government's. Others claim the TOR were agreed to beforehand and it was government that wanted them changed. ILO mainly wanted to confer with the 'big' unions, the FTUC and FTA; Government wanted them to talk with a wider group of people including other union leaders, workers and employers. 

Whatever the case, it would appear Government got wind of bias on the part of the ILO delegation and thought there would be a pre-conceived outcome in support of the local unions without any proper examination of the evidence on the ground. It decided to nip things in the bud, impose a new terms of reference, ask the current delegation to leave, and invite a new delegation back with a revised agenda. 

To those less familiar with the Fiji scene, its political and sometimes petty personal animosities and, most importantly, the delicate state of its economy, Government action may be judged unwise. It has already drawn criticism from the Australian and New Zealand governments and  the international labour movement has swung behind the local unions on principle but without, I suspect, any real appreciation of the stakes involved for a small country utterly dependent on tourism and its fragile export markets. 

And it could not have come at a worse time for the Constitution Dialogue Process, that is also under threat from these same unionists  with links to the Fiji Labour Party. At a time when Fiji most needs unity of purpose, another divisive spoke has been thrust into the wheel. 

It may have been better to let the ILO consultations proceed. It is hard to know. But one thing is certain. 

If the unions are successful in their current approaches to international labour and attempt to end the duty free status for Fiji exports, tens of thousands of ordinary Fijians will be affected. One must ask if the union cause is worth this sacrifice from others? 

I share the unions concerns about the Essential Industries Decree but they must know they will not succeed in changing the neo-liberal approach to unionism by the Bainimarama Government. 

Knowing this, would they not be wiser to wait until after the elections in 2014? The incoming government (of any persuasion) is likely to be more sympathetic to a disciplined union movement that was prepared to postpone its claims for the sake of people's jobs than it would be to a union movement that pursued these claims irrespective of their disastrous consequences for far more Fiji workers than it represents. 

 I have little hope for a rapprochement between unions and Government with the present identities involved. Things have become far too personal, and strong-willed men are unlikely to seek reconciliation. But, at this point in Fiji's history, working together to see the Dialogue process to a satisfactory conclusion is, I think, a far more important issue than the Essential Industries Decree — that could well be rescinded in two years time. 

 Related article


Anonymous said…

"Got wind of bia" or is it a case of realising they could not hood wink the ILO. Clearly government where going to give white wash picture that all is well. It isn't. Everyone knows that.
Turned said…
It's interesting that the loudest critics of government today are the same people who supported them (and the coup) earlier.

Felix Anthony
Daniel Urai
Father Barr
Mahendra Chaudry
Tevita Mara

The common theme here is they supported the coup and what government was doing when they where part of it (and in control or on the payroll). Now they don't.

Anonymous said…

or they got betrayed, fooled, conned, liumuried, ..whatever.

What should they do.....go dig a hole and hide or stand up and testify to the truth.

Just mind your vote (hahaha) when the time comes and select carefully.
Desmond said…
Yes Croz I agree that until unions do as they are told by the regime, the miltray will never be happy. How dare the ILO presume they could speak whom they want about the situation in Fiji. I imagine they were less inclined to have their report written for them buy the regime. 'Sure come and see for yourself and shut up if you dare not agree with us'.
%$##@ said…
Here we go again...'Fiji is a speacial case', 'come and see for yourself' but as we would expect, only dare report what you are told by regime flunkies. Do the ILO need terms of reference to visit Australia, NZ , or is it just places like China, Burma, Vietnam and Zimbabwe. I wonder why?
On the back foot said…
Like the junta, you seem to be continually on the back foot? Trying to defend the indefensible? The junta has again shot itself in the foot with the foolish act of expelling the ILO delegation? It is like watching a slow and painful death. This junta has no hope. None.
Crosbie Walsh said…
@ On the back foot ... I write a balanced article fairly expressing the views of all parties and you says I'm continually on the back foot and trying to defend the indefensible. With respect, I suggest you read the article again with both eyes open.

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