The Fiji Trades Union Congress notes with interest the recent comments attributed to the Attorney General calling on workers not to resort to money lenders for loans and his observation that home ownership amongst workers in Fiji is low.  We totally agree with AG’S advice and observation.  However, the AG needs to examine the root cause of this serious problem and the appropriate remedy.

The fact is, majority of Fiji’s workers are earning very low wages, well below the poverty line.  Their everyday challenge is to put food on the table for their families.  This is any food and not healthy food. The Ministry of Health’s campaign on reducing NCD’S and the promotion of healthy living makes no sense when people live in extreme poverty.  In most cases, workers are unable to make ends meet which necessitates borrowing.  It is a fact that these workers are unable to obtain loans from the bank because of the low wages that they earn and their inability to repay any loans. This is further exacerbated by the fact that many of these workers are on minimum wage or just above the minimum wage.  These workers have little choice but to turn to money lenders to put food on the table. This condemns these workers into perpetual debt by paying a small portion of the loan and borrowing more at exorbitant interest rates.

The Government’s policy of imposing individual contracts and in many cases short term contracts further makes it impossible for these workers to obtain bank loans. In many Government owned enterprises the length of these contracts is from 3 months to 1 year and is renewable.  Senior positions are usually between 2 to 3 years.  In such situations, these workers are unable to obtain housing loans as repayments would have to be for a longer term. The bottom line is that if these workers are unable to put food on the table, housing is unthinkable.  It is evident around urban areas that squatter settlements have been growing and it is no surprise why this is so. The promotion of collective bargaining is the way to go and not individual contracts.

It is for this reason that Fiji Trades Union Congress has been campaigning for a decent minimum wage so that workers can live with some dignity and be able to provide their families with the necessities of life. The current Government imposed minimum wage is an insult to working families and condemns them to extreme poverty which gives no dignity nor is it sufficient for a decent existence.

No one can provide for all the needs of a family on $2.32 an hour or a gross pay of $93 for a 44 hour week after FNPF and we should stop pretending that it is alright to treat people as lesser humans in the interest of businesses.  The National Employment Scheme, undermines the minimum wage at $60 per week with no other entitlements further condemning young workers to extreme poverty with the promise of job creation which is a farce. The fact is they replace permanent unskilled workers in many industries.

The Ministry of Poverty Alleviation recently stated that the poverty line is at about $202 a week.  This would peg the hourly rate of pay at $4.60 an hour.  The FTUC has pegged the starting point at $4.00 an hour which must be reviewed annually upwards.  The Government has repeatedly stated and promised the people of its commitment to alleviate poverty.  A fair minimum wage would go a long way in that regard. The FTUC urges the AG and Minister of Finance to seriously consider the FTUC proposal and implement a decent minimum wage at $4 as a starting point.

Past explanations and excuses given by the Minister for Labour citing “the bigger picture” and sustainability is seriously flawed and unacceptable. The poor are part of the bigger picture and in fact make the majority of the population.  The most recent excuse by the Minister is that a study would be commissioned and consultations would be held to determine minimum wage.  Why is it that when it comes to the poor, there must be some fancy study commissioned and when Parliamentarians and Government Ministers salary and allowances are increased exorbitantly overnight, they are not subject to the same public scrutiny?  The Minister’s excuses totally discredit the Government’s commitment and election promise of inclusive growth.  There is no point in talking of GDP growth when our people are forced deeper into poverty.  Clearly, the benefits of any such growth have not been flowing to the poor and that is evident.  This is time to act and not just dish advice and observe problems that are created by bad Government policy.  The right to decent work including wages and housing are human rights issues and Government must take full responsibility for the current sad state of affairs.  It is time that Government actually listened to the cries of the poor and not just big businesses.  It is not the time for freebees to pacify the poor but real actions to uplift the quality of life of our people.

Felix Anthony

National Secretary