The Dilemma of Fiji's Trade Unions

Opinion
By Crosbie Walsh

Many years ago theologians debated how many angels could stand on the head of a pin. A similar but far less theoretical argument now arises in Fiji: can anyone stand on the line that separates pro- and anti-Government positions, when a line, by definition, has no width? Or, in relation to the topic of this article, can anyone clearly separate what is a legitimate trade union political activity and what is just straight politics?

I raise this question because we have recently seen claims that the new constitution prohibits the right to strike; because of Felix Anthony's recent threats to take the Sugar and General Workers out on strike (and earlier threats that could have affected the tourist industry); because of Attar Singh's long-standing opposition to the Bainimarama government and his Fiji Islands Council of Trade Unions (FICTU) joining the United Front for a Democratic Fiji (UFDF), a combination of the old political parties, plus the FICTU; and because of the threatened strike action by the Confederation of Public Sector Unions (the PSA, Fiji Teachers Union and Fiji Teachers Association) prompted by the recent massive increases in permanent secretary salaries.

First, the right to strike.
Section 20 (2) of the Constitution reads: "Every worker has the right to form and join a trade union, and participate in its activities and programmes,and to strike." 

But the constitution also includes what some have called "claw back clauses," or limitations imposed on rights. Thus, section 20 (5) reads:"A law may limit, or may authorise the limitation of, the rights mentioned in this section—
(a) in the interests of national security, public safety, public order, public morality, public health or the orderly conduct of elections;(b) for the purposes of protecting the rights and freedoms of others;(c) for the purposes of imposing restrictions on the holders of public offices;(d) for the purposes of regulating trade unions, or any federation, congress, council or affiliation of tradeunions, or any federation, congress, council or affiliation of employers;(e) for the purposes of regulating collective bargaining processes, providing mechanisms for the resolutionof employment disputes and grievances, and regulating strikes and lockouts; or(f) for the purposes of regulating essential services and industries, in the overall interests of the Fijian economy and the citizens of Fiji."
Two questions arise about section 20 (5): Is it reasonable? Can it be abused? I think it reasonable. No right can be unconditional. But it could be abused if a government set out to do do. Not necessarily this government; any government in the future. There is, however, an important check on governments.

Section 44 (2) permits people and institutions that consider their rights unjustly infringed can take their case to the High Court. Some opponents have questioned the impartiality of the High Court which is appointed by the President or the recommendation of  the Constitutional Offices Commission, and the same people have questioned the impartiality of the COC. In the period leading up to the 2014 election this is a legitimate objection because the present Prime Minister has excessive power but after the elections power is more evenly distributed between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.

In sum, there are problems for trade unions arising out of existing decrees and the constitution before the 2014 elections, but the decrees applying to trade unions can be repealed or changed by the incoming Parliament. After the elections, I think an elected Parliament and the Constitution sufficiently robust to protect trade union rights, and the host of other human rights protected in the 2013 Constitution.

Felix Anthony
In earlier postings I have covered the efforts of Felix Anthony to recruit support from Australian and NZ unions, how this was said to threaten the tourism industry, and how this all this tied in to the Essential Industries Decree

I do not approve of the Decree. I thought, and still think, it excessive and unnecessary, but it is hard to dismiss Government's preference for direct management-worker bargaining than the more confrontational approach of the unions. Fiji has enough economic problems without adding industrial unrest to the list. In a related article I suggested that I did not think the unions were being "targeted" by Government. I wrote:
"I don't think it is the Workers' Party, the trade union movement or FLP per se that are being targeted,  although the Bainimarama government is far more right wing than left. Rather it is the people who lead them that Government seeks  to marginalise. From what has been said many times, I can't see Government making any accommodation with the likes of Felix Anthony, Daniel Urai, Attar Singh and Mahendra Chaudhry. 
"Fiji is a small society and an important consequence of "smallness" is that personal relationships are that much more important in the political arena than in bigger societies.  What may have started as differences in opinion or policy so often end up as a conflict of personalities.
"Bainimarama sees these trade unionists  and Chaudhry as putting their self-interests ahead of the nation, and their efforts to win support from the international trade union movement as acts of betrayal tantamount to  treason. Government claims unionists were responsible for pushing Air Pacific close to the edge of bankruptcy. I think this unlikely but it matters not whether these claims are fair and accurate. It is what they believe."

ABC's Pacific Beat reports that Anthony has now called off the threatened strike by his Sugar and General Workers' Union, saying his members have been intimidated, threatened with losing their jobs, and being "taken up to the military camp to be dealt with."  I am in no position to say whether this is true or false. 

But it it is at least equally plausible that he had insufficient worker support. He has been the union leader since time immemorial and it's difficult to see what he's actually achieved for his members.

Attar Singh
The "personality factor" also applies to Attar Singh who has constantly needled the Bainimarama government since 2006. Government sees him —and by extension, his Fiji Council of Trade Unions—as anti-Government, whatever it does. Further, Singh, more than other unionists, has stepped over the union-political divide by joining the UFDF, an otherwise purely political grouping. And in so doing he has guaranteed he will not be listened to.

I think it highly likely that this sort of involvement resulted in the Constitutional clause that unionists and other officials must step down from office if they intend to contest the 2014 Elections.

The Confederation of Public Sector Unions
The CPSU comprises the PSA, the Fiji Teachers Union and the Fiji Teachers Association, collectively with about 15,000 members, by far the largest union grouping in Fiji. Their recent response to news that permanent secretaries and other senior government people were to receive salary increases ranging from 45 to to 193% was to write to the Attorney-General and ask for a 110% increase for all their members. If granted, this would have bankrupted Fiji. They have now toned down this demand and FTU GenSec Agni Deo says they'll be asking their members "what they think will be a fair increase."

This is a much more responsible demand but even then if overlooks the fact that the increased salaries for permanent secretaries were recommended by a firm of independent accountants on the basis of comparisons with the private sector, with the intention of making these top jobs more attractive to the best possible applicants. This is unabashed neo-liberalism in action. It also fails to recognize that Government, in accepting the proposed increases, removed all their previously enjoyed non-salary benefits such as free or subsidised housing, free transport and entertainment allowances.

More importantly, the action saw the unions adopting their usual stance of looking upwards with envy at those paid more, and not downwards to those paid much less or not at all.

It is Government, and not the unions, that has moved towards a minimum wage and assistance for those at and below the poverty line. "Workers of the World Unite!" is not a call made by the relatively well paid unionised workers in Fiji, at least not when it concerns less paid workers.

The inequality gap
The last half century has seen neo-liberalism erode and largely replace the welfare-ism that marked the post-World War II years. This philosophy calls on government to withdraw from "interfering" with the economy. It sees "growth" as the best way to increase living standards, and the unimpeded "laws of supply and demand " as the best way to achieve growth. 

The result has been an increase of inequality within and between countries. Opinions are divided on its benefits. Some say it promotes investment and efficiency; others say it adversely affects health, living standards and social cohesion.  The increase in permanent secretary salaries indicates the Fiji Government is persuaded by the former view. 

The most recent data from OECD countries show the top 10% of the population earn nine times more than the bottom 10%. In Israel, Turkey and the USA it is 14 times, and in some Latin American countries 27 times. World-wide, one percent of individuals own 40% of global assets, and the richest three people have assets greater than the combined assets of the world's 48 poorest countries. I do not have the figures for Fiji but I suspect the income and inequality gap is increasing. It goes without saying that the wealthy in these countries are far more able to influence government policies than the poor.

The important point is that the Fiji Government, in going along with the permanent secretary
salary increases, is probably doing nothing different from what the Qarase government would have done in similar circumstances. Both Governments are centre-right in political terms. 

There are signs, however, that the Bainimarama government is less neo-liberal in some respects than its predecessor. It will not threaten the rich and very rich, but it is trying to ease the lot of the poor. This is seen in its not infrequent "interference" in the economy: in improved education opportunities, assistance with health care and housing, support for micro enterprises, the minimum wage, and price controls.

The dilemma for organized labour is that it is unlikely to be listened to under their present leadership, and there seems little chance present union leaders will be replaced any time soon. There is also no way of knowing whether unionists will be economically better off under this or that government after the 2014 Elections.

Their best course of action would therefore seem to be to rethink their role in a neo-liberal and politically limited Fiji, and in particular, to :
  • Chip away at neo-liberalism by targeted policies on wages and working conditions
  • Speak out in favour of  improvements for the very poor 
  • Always make reasonable requests (the 110% request was not one of them)
  • Seek constitutional clarity on the "claw back " clauses
  • Avoid head-on clashes with the Bainimarama government, and
  • Be very aware of the political consequences of their action
Ultimately, like the rest of Fiji, they have to decide between accepting the politics of the past as practised and expressed by the UFDF, or helping to shape the unknown politics of the future. 

The issues at stake are far bigger than wages and salaries. 

Comments

Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said…
Your article raises some valid points, but distorts the truth. Our PM does not have "excessive" powers. "Excessive" power is just a polite way to say that he is a dictator which he is not. The new constitution clearly limits his powers even before the elections and if he decides to contest the election, he will step down from his office as is required from unionists and others. With regard to the equality gap and the recent increase in salaries for Permanent Secretaries, I believe that this increase was long overdue. Many of the PS have multiple roles serving both in their respective ministries and as military officers and therefore take on work loads similar to those carried by our AG and our PM. These sacrifices need to be acknowledged in adequate salary packages. Take Francis Kean for example. A navy commander and PS for Works, Transport and Public Utilities he has to run a key portfolio in Fiji without ever having the opportunity to get the education required for this job. As a consequence he studies every evening until very late in order to improve his understanding of the issues arising in his ministry.
nepotism said…
if francis kean is not qualified, why appoint him in the first place? to the point of springing him from jail. this is the problem with nepotism. and we though this was a cleanup campaign. hahaha, the joke is on us
Joe said…
Thank God, no more double dipping. You either run for parliament or remain a union leader, commander etc.
Anonymous said…
Joe, yes, no double dipping, but some triple, quadruple dipping.

PS salaries have been increased so that Ministers salaries must via protocol be higher than PS salaries.

Junior Minister $250k, senior Minister $300k.

This has been set upon prior to the elections so that when the present regime slides into government by whatever means, the new legitimate ministers will be able to continue to double, triple dip and retain their present $1 million salaries.

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