In an address in early August 2011 defending the Essential National Industries (Employment) Decree, the Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, said:
“The Bainimarama Government, as you can see from our track record, has been on the forefront of improving wages for those workers who have been on the margin of poverty.” (Fiji Times 8th August)
However, this statement is far from the truth and needs to be addressed.
I wish to take a brief review of 2011 from the viewpoint of the workers of Fiji. It may have been a great year for employers and investors but not for the ordinary workers of the country.
- The Wage Regulation Orders set to come into effect on the 1st January 2009 were delayed until the 1st July that year due to objections of a small group of influential employers. Then the new Wage Regulation Orders which were due to come into effect on the 1st July 2010 were not only delayed until 1st May 2011 but were reduced by 5% without any consultation with the Wages Councils.
- These Wage Regulation Orders had also previously been held up on the desk of the Permanent Secretary for four months and not handed to the Minister responsible without any explanation ever being given to the Wages Councils for the undue delay.
- Even then there was a further delay because the Wage Regulation Orders were not gazetted in time to take effect on 1st May 2011 and had to be backdated. Yet, in fact, not all employers did backdate worker’s wages.
- None of the 40 Wages Council meetings due to be held in 2011 were held due to the stubborn determination of the Permanent Secretary to have a formula based only on inflation and productivity. In fact the ILO Convention 135 for fixing wages (which Fiji has adopted) is based on much wider criteria, which includes (as fundamental) the current cost of living and the basic needs of workers and their families.
- Anti-labour legislation in the form of the Essential National Industries Decree was introduced without any consultation with the Employment Relations Advisory Board.
- A number of Union Leaders were publicly vilified by the Attorney General in the media. Some are also facing court cases.
- It seemed clear that a strong lobby of employers (some of them quite affluent) have the ear of the Attorney General and perhaps the Prime Minister and are able to use their influence to delay (and reduce) the proposed Wage Regulation Orders. They operate outside of the due process in a manner consistent with “crony capitalism”.
- This employer lobby had also earlier organised a campaign to have the Chair of the Wages Councils and the Chief Arbitrator removed. However this did not succeed.
- The 2012 Budget announced last year was obviously very pro-business and provided a reduction in corporate tax and the taxes of high income earners. However 71% of ordinary workers who earned below the tax threshold of $15,600 received no advantage. The rich benefited but not the poor despite various news items announcing that every worker in Fiji now had more money in their pockets.
- At the recent meeting of the Nadi Chamber of Commerce an employer’s representative (Peter Mazey) publicly acknowledged on TV that employers had got almost everything they asked for in the 2012 Budget. (The positive side of this, of course, is that employers should now be better able to increase and not oppose wages for their workers in 2012.)
- Throughout 2011 and into 2012 we continue to receive complaints of exploitation from various groups of workers that:
- The approved Wage Regulation Orders are not being paid;
- That overtime payments are not being made;
- That FNPF deductions are not being made or, if deducted, are not paid into the Fund;
- Wage slips are not provided;
- That workers who complain are afraid they will be sacked.
- The cost of living has increased dramatically with 36% increases in the price of food following a 20% devaluation and a 2.5% increase in VAT. Fuel and gas costs have risen along with the bills for water and electricity. Rice, meat, tin fish and flour have gone up. Even sugar prices (or own product) have risen dramatically. The 60% of workers covered by the Wages all earn below the current poverty line of $185 and are really struggling to meet the basic needs of their families.
- About 30%-35% of Fiji’s population living below the poverty line but only 3%-4% of those in poverty receive social welfare benefits.
- Only now (21st March) are the ten Wages Councils beginning to meet again and hopefully be in a position to recommend new Wage Regulation Orders to come into effect by the 1st July 2012. Only when this actually happens (without any further delays and reductions) can we accept that the Bainimarama Government is concerned about “improving wages for those workers who have been on the margin of poverty”. But the “track record” so far has not been encouraging due to government (especially the AG himself) tolerating the interference of a strong lobby of employers who work outside of the official legal process set up for protecting workers by determining wage orders
- We hope and pray that it will now be the worker’s turn to obtain justice so that 2012 becomes a year when both employers and employees can look forward to a better future.