The National Secretary FTUC, Mr Felix Anthony, addressed the Committee of Application of Standards on the Fiji Case Tuesday Fiji Time. Here’s is the full text of his speech to the Committee.
” 1 May is a very special day for workers the world over. That is the day where workers celebrate struggles over the decades. In Fiji, 1 May this year, some 2,075 workers were summarily terminated; 29 workers were arrested for simply being on union property for unlawful assembly and jailed for two days and charged by police; trade union leaders who dared to speak up for workers were arrested and jailed for two days; union offices were raided by police and staff and members were threatened and intimidated by police in riot gear. This summarizes the state of our democracy and the atmosphere in which trade unions and workers work in Fiji.
Government’s response in defence of its actions, it attempts to rely on the Public Order Amendment Decree which was imposed by the military Government and violates human and trade union rights. In March 2015, the tripartite partners signed a JIR in the presence of the Director General of the ILO. The Government of Fiji agreed to address all of the 33 issues identified by the Committee of Experts in 2015, which were bundled together under the labour law review process. This JIR was signed only the night before the Governing Body meeting was due to take place on the Fiji case and averted the decision for a Commission of Inquiry into Fiji under article 26 of the ILO Constitution. While the Government addressed some of the issues, labour law review and the essential services listing remained outstanding. Since then, no progress has been made despite a further contacts mission in 2016 where a second JIR was signed. The same commitments were given by the Government of Fiji.
On the contrary, the Government unilaterally continued to impose the open merit system to assess workers’ performance and made it a condition of employment for workers to sign these individual contracts, more particularly for civil servants, government-owned entities and all those industries that Government had redefined as essential services, including banks, airlines and local government workers. This contract periods were anywhere from three months to three years. In most government-owned entities, blue collar workers were only given three-month contracts which would be renewed every so often after a week’s break to deny workers their minimum entitlements. This effectively meant that while the Essential National Industries Decree was repealed, the same conditions intended by the Decree continued, thus denying workers the freedom of association and unions the right to collective bargaining and reduce union density and coverage. Existing collective agreements that were in existence at the time of the imposition of the Decree and which were made invalid by the Decree have not been reinstated despite the Committee of Experts’ request.
The Government’s explanation that they have been replaced by new negotiated collective agreements is simply not true. There has been no negotiations on collective bargaining except for the timber industry. We do not see any valid reason why the collective agreements that existed prior to the Decree cannot be reinstated. They were negotiated and agreed to after all.
We are dealing with issues that the Committee dealt with for over seven years. On every occasion, we have had the Government’s undertaking that they would completely respect workers’ rights and address the violations. Yet little has been done and in fact the situation has actually worsened. The Government’s inaction and disregard for the decisions of the Committee has amounted to wasting the valuable time of the Committee. We would like to see the Government of Fiji behave more responsibly and take seriously its commitments to the Committee.
I would like to address some of the issues that have not been implemented. The labour law review which is part of the JIR which the Government has not honoured till today. This was to address 31 issues that the 2015 and 2016 Committee of Experts had asked the Government to act upon and to ensure compliance with all core Conventions. The violations are again listed in the most recent report of the Committee of Experts. The list of essential industries was also part of the JIR. The parties had agreed to act upon this.
What we find is that it is only now, just before this meeting, that the Government has actually requested technical assistance from the ILO to address this issue. The report cites the Public Order Amendment Decree and had urged the Government consistently to address violations. This Act gives sweeping powers to the police and the Commissioner of Police to deny any form of protest or assembly in either public or private places and to arrest and charge any persons. The Act defines terrorism as any person who attempts or incites any action that would either damage or potentially damage the economy or cause unrest. The penalty for this is life imprisonment. Because of this, unions cannot undertake any strike or protest action.
In this respect, more recently the FTUC had made four applications to organize peaceful marches in protest against the violation of workers’ rights. These have all been denied by the police without providing any reasons.
More recently, on 30 April, the General Secretary of the Nurses’ Union and the General Secretary of the Fijian Teachers Association and a union organizer were arrested and detained for 48 hours. On 1 May, I was arrested and detained for 48 hours and questioned about the protests and marches that the FTUC had planned. On the same day, 29 other members of the National Union of Workers who were terminated by the Water Authority of Fiji were arrested on union property for alleged unlawful assembly and charged under the Public Order Amendment Act. Strict bail conditions were imposed including a curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and a travel ban.
On 1 May, the workers of the Water Authority were summarily terminated with the employer citing that the contracts had come to an end. The police intervened and guarded the entrance to the workplace and disallowed workers from entering the premises.
On 1 and 2 May, the National Union of Workers and FTUC premises were raided by the police, and documents and electronic equipment, including files, computers and mobile phones were confiscated. My computer and phone have not been returned to me until today. The report also questions the powers of the Registrar of Trade Unions. This has been well covered by the spokesperson for the Workers.
On the Political Parties Decree, I also do not see the need for me to elaborate on that other than to state that a trade union officer is not a public office. Trade unions are membership-based organizations and it is the membership that actually pays for the running of the trade union and it is not paid by the Government at all. We do not believe that trade unions should be classified as public offices, quite apart from the fact that the denial of our fundamental rights and not partaking in the political process of the country.
The Committee of Experts has consistently called on the Government to allow prison officers to join or form unions. Currently, prison officers are not allowed to exercise their freedom of association. The Government stubbornly continues to refuse prison officers this right. As to the long-standing 26 year-old strike by Vatukoula goldmines, we recall that the Government had presented an elaborate plan for the mine-workers in 2016 before the Committee. I note that the Government’s current position has changed totally where they claim no responsibility or liability for mineworkers at all.
Workers in Fiji work under a cloud of fear. Their jobs are insecure, unionists are unable to carry out their legitimate activities. Tripartism in Fiji is dead and this includes all the tripartite bodies where the workers had traditionally been represented. I would just like to say that we note that the Government’s response is that the appointments are made according to law. What the Government has omitted to tell the Committee is that the laws that they refer to were amended by this very Government more recently where they have excluded the workers’ and the employers’ representatives.
We note that the Government has referred to recent meetings which were initiated by the ILO Suva Office to explore the way forward for the social partners. The partners and the ILO had agreed that these meetings would be informal and that no party would refer to these meetings or publicize them. Obviously, the Government has not kept its part of the deal, as usual. This now puts the social partners in a more difficult situation for further discussions.
Lastly, the Government of Fiji continually attempts to demonize the trade union movement in Fiji and its officers. Most recently, the Prime Minister and the Attorney General publicly called unions irrelevant. They have removed unions from tripartite bodies and imposed precarious and insecure working conditions that violate workers and trade union and human rights. Yet they come to the Committee and applaud decent work, social dialogue and tripartism. This hypocrisy has to stop.”
Other workers’ reps speeches will be uploaded soon.