Government Has Only Itself to Blame But ...
Opinion by Crosbie Walsh
|Neo-liberalism: neither new nor liberal|
The legislation was not unique and similar legislation, prompted by the same neo-liberalist philosophy, now exists in many Western countries.
But in the highly charged Fiji context, it became a critical political issue. Government was seen to be aligning itself with employers and alienating support from trade unionists and "middle" Fiji.
With so many elements of the "old regime" still alive and well, it was also a tactical —and possibly a strategic — error.
Some people have said the enactment of the decree was a turning point in Government's commitment to a fair Fiji. Where, people asked, is the idealism of the People's Charter? Had Government lost the plot?
Since then, the FTUC has appealed for help to the Australian and NZ trade unions and is now appealing to the USA to revoke Fiji's special trade concessions if Government does not revoke the decree. Government continues to call these acts anti-Fijian because they threaten jobs, but the decree was imposed without any consultation with the unions, and that also could be seen as not the Fijian Way.
If the decision goes against Fiji in Washington DC today, it could stop Fiji from benefiting from the US Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) Scheme and put 15,000 jobs at risk through loss of exports.
Meanwhile, the PM continues to accuse unionists of using people for their own benefit. It is easy to personalise these matters (and the union leadership is certainly not beyond reproach) but the crux of the issue is about the future of nation-wide trade unions, not personalities.
I am not reassured by the PM's statement that "the government seeks to ensure unions can take collective action as directed by their member workers and are subject only to restrictions that are generally accepted to protect the public good." There could be few "member workers" left if the decree is allowed to run its course, and one must ask whether Government is the only acceptable arbiter of public good?
The PM says the decree was part of Fiji’s progress toward establishing parliamentary democracy, and all labour laws are now being reviewing to ensure their compliance with the 34 ILO conventions that Fiji has ratified.
The review is being conducted by the Employment Relations Advisory Board that comprises representatives from government, the trade unions and employers. The review is welcome —even if it is only a response to possible US action— but the public needs to know the membership of the Board, whether the unionists represented include those affected by the decree, and whether any are affiliated to the FTUC. I was unable to obtain information on the membership of the Board.
The PM also announced government will soon adopt Fiji’s first national minimum wage and he urged employers, unions and employees to make submissions to the Constitution Commission.
All very encouraging, one may think, but to maintain the US trade concessions and prevent future threats from overseas unions, not to mention criticism from many Fiji citizens and the international community, Government should accept the advice of the FTUC president Daniel Urai:
Remove the decrees that limit the rights of the workers and enable the decrees to be challenged in court.
Government got itself into this situation in the first place. It is important it extricates itself with honour.
But the unions also have to ask themselves two important questions of honour. Have they really explored all other means to resolve the problem? And, more importantly, is what they are fighting for worth up to 15,000 other people losing their jobs?