ISSN 2330-717X

Union Delegation Rattles Fijian Regime – OpEd

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By Alex Schlotzer

An Australian and New Zealand union delegation heads to Fiji next week to investigate first hand abuses of workplace rights within the island nation. The delegation comes on the back of moves this week by the International Labour Organisation to intervene to safeguard human and labour rights in Fiji.

The delegation will meet with workers and union leaders to discuss the deteriorating situation. But repeated requests to meet with Commodore Bainimarama have gone unanswered, and his regime continues to ignore mounting international pressure to return labour rights to workers.

The pressure against Bainimarama’s oppressive regime stepped up this week, with an unprecedented resolution at the ILO’s regional meeting in Kyoto this week, condemning the actions of the Fijian Government to persecute union leaders and restrict fundamental labour rights. The resolution was backed by union, Government and employer representatives, including the ACTU and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The situation in Fiji is not a recent development. The dismantling of workers’ rights began when the military came to power in a coup in 2006.

While ignoring an invitation to meet with the delegation next week, the regime’s Attorney General claims the country is open and free. He even went so far as to suggest the Australian Council of Trade Unions’ concerns about workers’ and human rights were based on fantasy and the ravings of biased people intent on bringing Fiji to its knees.

Yet we know that since the regime staged their coup under the leadership of Commodore Frank Bainimarama, human and workers’ rights abuses have increased. Fiji is not quite the idyllic paradise it appears in tourist brochures, not for its workers anyway. Every day workers are threatened with intimidation, bullying, harassment and threats of violence, including rape.

This is the price they pay when they stand up for their basic rights everyone is entitled to, no matter where they live.

Perhaps we need to refresh the Attorney General’s memory and look at the human and workers’ rights abuses of the military regime.

Here’s a brief timeline of reported abuses:

2006

  • December The Military, led by Commodore Bainimarama, stages a coup

2007

  • January Commodore Bainimarama is installed as interim Prime Minister
  • March Regime announces 5% cut in wages for civil servants. Employers in the private sector take advantage of this and deny wage increases. Wages remain frozen.
  • July Fiji Nurses Association goes on strike in response to the wage decision and is supported by affiliates of the Fiji Islands Council of Trade Union (FICTU). In the aftermath of the strike, Taniela Tabu (a FICTU spokesperson) is arrested claiming he was forced to strip to his underwear and threatened in detention. Prior to the FNA strike, the President and General Secretary of FNA are harassed near their workplace by members of the security forces.
  • Attar Singh, General Secretary of FICTU is taken to army barracks where he is assaulted by the military and threats are made to kill him.

2008

  • December Tevita Koroi, President of the Fijian Teachers’ Association and a member of the Council of Pacific Education, is suspended from his position as principal by the Fiji Public Service Commission. He is later fired from the public service (April 2009). The Commission criticised Mr Koroi for speaking out publicly against the military coup.

2009

  • April Fiji Court of Appeal finds coup and interim regime to be illegal.
  • Fiji constitution abrogated so Bainimarama can re-appoint himself as Prime Minister.
  • All judicial appointments are sacked and a decree is introduced that prevents any court action that questions the validity of any decree promulgated by regime.
  • Public Emergency Regulation (PER) is enacted. The powers under the PER include:
  • Prohibition of and powers to disperse assemblies of more than 3 persons
  • Severe censorship of all Fiji media
  • Detaining persons without charge for up to 10 days
  • ‘Control of persons’, namely the power to place them under house arrest or similar restrictions
  • Imposition of curfews and restrictions on movements around the country
  • The right of police officers/military personnel to search any person, building or vehicle
  • Administration of Justice Decree (No. 9) enacted allowing the Courts to make unchallengeable decisions
  • Journalist, Pita Ligailua, is detained by authorities for writing a piece that appeared in The Australian that was not vetted by the regime. Detentions and threats against other journalists are made in the following weeks. Amnesty International reports that in the month following the introduction of the PER, approximately 40 people are arrested and detained.
  • May Administration of Justice Decree (No. 10) enacted and prevents any proceedings that seek to review or appeal the legality of decrees made by the regime.
  • Reverend Manasa Lasaro, former president of the Methodist Church of Fiji, is arrested by police following statements he made denouncing the abrogation of the constitution and the introduction of the PER.
  • June Military regime announces it has cancelled the annual Methodist Church Conference.
  • November Commodore Bainimarama expels Australian and New Zealand High Commissioners from Fiji. Peceli Kinivuwai, leader of a political party, is detained and harassed for commenting to overseas media about the expulsion of diplomats.
  • Dr Brij Lal, a prominent Fijian historian, is forced to leave Fiji after the military threatens to kill him. Lal criticised the regime’s decision to expel Australian and New Zealand diplomats.

2010

  • January Pramond Raie, a trade unionist, is approached by army officers at his home and is warned against organising a strike by members of his union by the Bank of Baroda.
  • Commodore Bainimarama announces the regime will stop pension payments of pensioners that are ‘dissenters and critics’ of the regime.
  • Regime announces a ban on the Methodist Church from holding their annual conference until 2014 accusing church ministers of spying on the regime for the government ousted in the 2006 coup.
  • June Regime establishes the Fiji Media Industry Development Authority. It’s responsible for ensuring local media outlets do not publish material against the regime.
  • August A journalist is detained and threatened by security forces and forced to reveal sources after publishing an article alleging that the Commissioner of Police had been sacked by the regime.
  • October Mahendra Chaudhry, General Secretary of the National Farmers Union and former Prime Minister, is arrested along with five associates and detained for four days. Chaudhry is accused of not requesting authorisation to organise a public meeting, a violation of the PER. A journalist that reported the arrest and detention of Chaudhry is detained and threatened with prosecution under the PER.

2011

  • February Felix Anthony (Secretary General, Fiji Trades Union Congress) is detained and assaulted and while being transported, the officers threaten him and his family.
  • Sam Speight, a government critic and former Cabinet Minister in the deposed government, is detained at military barracks. Reports indicate he was beaten until losing consciousness.
  • Felix Anthony and two union representatives are beaten and verbally abused in Ba for approximately 2 hours. They are assaulted again at Namaka barracks by military personnel.
  • June Two army officers assault Mohammed Khalil, President of the Fiji Sugar and General Workers Union. Officers accuse him of being a union strongman. He is made to wallow in the mud, is stomped on and dragged along the ground in full view of colleagues and onlookers. Officers demand his resignation from the union by 3pm the following day with threats of similar treatment if he fails to comply.
  • August Daniel Urai (FTUC President) and Nitin Gounder (organiser) are arrested and charged with unlawful assembly under the PER for apparently having met with and advised union members regarding collective bargaining negotiations with a hotel.
  • Regime prohibits automatic union dues deductions for all public service workers. This cripples unions in the public sector.
  • FTUC meeting to discuss impacts of the regime’s Decrees is disrupted by police and the permit to hold the meeting is revoked. In response, FTUC makes an application to hold a future meeting, which is rejected.
  • Regime denies application by Fiji Sugar and General Workers Union to hold a meeting with its members.
  • September Essential National Industries Decree introduced
  • October Shaland Scott, Secretary of the Fiji Pilots’ Association and employee of Air Pacific (nearly half owned by Qantas) is arrested and charged with unauthorised release of documents.
  • World Bank survey on ‘ease of doing business’ finds that the ease of doing business in Fiji has deteriorated under the regime.
  • Daniel Urai is detained and questioned by police after returning to Fiji from Australia where he was participating in the side events to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Urai is held for 10 days before being charged.
  • November Felix Anthony is arrested and detained without being charged.
  • Daniel Urai is charged, after being held for 10 days, with sedition for allegedly urging political violence to overthrow the regime.
  • Essential National Industries Decree comes into full effect, denying workers many fundamental rights, including to freely organise and bargain collectively.

Clearly the Attorney General’s memory is quite poor if he failed to remember those abuses.

If there is any damage to credibility being done it is being done by Bainimarama’s regime. By denying that regular and repeated abuses of human and workers’ rights occur, the regime only continues to damage itself and hurt the Fijian people.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions is determined to investigate the situation in Fiji, regardless of what the Attorney General claims. Next week the delegation flies into Fiji and they remain hopeful of meeting with Commodore Bainimarama and other leaders of the regime.

If Fiji is to develop and restore its standing in the international community, the regime must restore human and workers’ rights and put an end to the intimidation, bullying and violence.

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