Government Has Only Itself to Blame But ...

Opinion by Crosbie Walsh

Neo-liberalism: neither new nor liberal
This blog criticized the introduction of the Essential National Industries Decree when it was introduced a year ago. We maintained the decree undermined national trade unions, exposed workers to the whims of employers, and earlier legislation made the decree unnecessary.

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?


Rusi said…
'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 the other obvious question, is the story correct that the self appointed PM has never picked up the phone with the leadership in the Union movement to facilitate dialogue, or are there more important things for him to be doing? It appears for someone who spurns politics and politicians he is pefectly compfortable in making statements to the media and 'ordering compliance' but this again falls short of an actual dialogue. How much growth has been forfeited due to the instability caused the frequent coups perpetrated on Fiji?
Reality 2 said…
The real reason for the decree was to reduce union power and in particular those 'political' union leaders that are seen as a threat to the military government and presumably Franks election aspirations. Of course this is made difficult because Felix and Urai where both very much supporters of the coup and military government because they got high paying board roles. Its only when they where turfed out that they became a problem.

A simpler solution for government would be to pursue both felix and Urai for corruption via FICAC. With its full resources it can easily discredit them enough regardless of getting a conviction or not and the process can be dragged out until well after 2014.

I honestly don't see any workers being worse off as a result of these decrees. Unionists in Fiji in the last 10 years have all been about stiring up trouble to ensure subs come on in. Most employer runs ins relate to sacked workers who have done something seriously wrong. And despite that the union throws its full weight behind their memebers because thats what joining a union is - a insurance policy just in case something goes wrong.
Anonymous said…
I see lots of comments about Government being too pro business but talk to business and they have different views.

As a example for the last two years multinationals have been hit with extra 15% remittance tax on profits (so real tax rate has gone up not down).
STOP THE PRESS....something is actually this governments fault !!!!

For nearly six years all I have heard is that everything is every one elses fault. Usually past governments, past politicins, unionists, busines, Australia & New Zealand, colonialists... But never governments actual fault despite having had absolute power for nearly six years.

Oh hang on, just re-read the article - government is not accepting responsibility its just Croz suggesting they might be at fault here....
Have they really explored all other means to resolve the problem?

Here are some alternatives already tried by the unions

1- They could take the Regime to Court.
Sorry that’s not allowed.
2- They could hold a meeting to discuss it
Sorry that is not allowed
3- They could hold a press conference and have their views reported in the press.
Sorry there is media self censorship.
4- They could hold a march through the streets of Suva.
Sorry that is not allowed.
5- They could place some adverts in the newspapers
Sorry the papers don’t run adverts that have a contrary view to the regime
6- They could organize a visit from the ILO to talk to government
Sorry the ILO got expelled
7- They could have a meeting with Bainimarama
Sorry that leads to a beating and a hospital visit
8- They could go to China for a Labor meeting
Sorry Nadi immigration won’t let them catch their flight
9- They could hold a strike
Sorry that is not allowed
10- They could invite the Australians unions to Fiji to talk to the regime
Sorry they were not allowed to leave the airport.

Croz, here are 10 ideas the unions have already tried. Every single one was stopped by the regime. I bow down to your wisdom and would like to hear what other means they could use to resolve this dispute.
Crosbie Walsh said…
@ Graham .... Nothing. They did all they could to argue their case. The only other option open to them —and I suggested this in an earlier article — is to present their case to the Constitution Commission, and wait. The 2014 elections are now less than two years away, and I doubt any incoming government will uphold the 2011 Essential Industries Decree. I also made the point that whatever action they take, they cannot force government to change its stance and there is a possibility the Constitution Dialogue process could be derailed, which would be a catastrophe. Not a neat option, I confess, but at least 15,000 jobs will not be at stake, and they would win the respect of the wider community.
Anonymous said…
so again we finally accept that this regime is not about consultation and accountbility, it is only about it's own survival and requires the compliance of all fijians. Now they expect coooperation? They clearly think that people have short memories. I will take every opportunity to remind them. They created the decrees, they cannot pass off any blame on to anyone.I for one have had enough ofbeing lectured and spoken at by Bainimarama
Lovo Len 1 said…
'I doubt any incoming government will'.... lets just stop you there shall have no idea what the next government will be prepared or not prepared to do with the military omminously hovering around demanding all submit to their legacy of decrees and the very real threat that their presence implies. We only have to wait for some brave new government to create a juducial inquiry into the behaviour and processes of this junta to see what will happen even if they accept(which i don't) that will abide by an immunity provision and no charges are laid. This regime, their appointees, allies and cronies will never want to come to light, what they have been up to whilst being protected by the most oppressive decrees Fiji has ever seen.

I disagree with just about every point you make.

1- "I doubt any incoming government will uphold the 2011 Essential Industries Decree"
What happens if a Bainimarama or Khaiyum led party wins the election. Do you really think they will repeal this decree?

2- "I also made the point that whatever action they take, they cannot force government to change its stance"
They seem to be having a degree of success. Bainimarama has announced a review of all the labour laws. So perhaps, just perhaps this sort of pressure does work with the dictator.

3- "Not a neat option, I confess, but at 15,000 jobs will not be at stake, and they would win the respect of the wider community."

This is a much inflated number of jobs at stake but I agree any job lost because of the regime’s intransigence is tragic. This has come about solely because the government writes decrees in isolation without even checking to see whether they contravene agreements signed by Fiji.

The reality of the situation is that the Congress is obliged to remove the GSP benefits to Fiji if the country is in contravention of basic labour rights. It will make no difference to the current process if the Unions step back.

4- If you are so concerned with the jobs of workers in Fiji, why did you keep so quiet when Fiji Water laid off 150 workers last year. That was as a direct result of the regime imposing a 15 cent per litre tax on Fiji Water. I don’t remember hearing you or Graham Davis criticizing the regime over a policy that cost 150 workers and their families their livelihoods.

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