Fijian mill workers reject employer sweeteners
Fiji’s main export is cane sugar. It is farmed and milled in the islands and then shipped around the world to the Silvertown refinery in East London. Under the military dictatorship that has run Fiji since 2006 the sugar industry has been starved of investment. Military discipline has replaced modern management techniques. The military-run Fiji Sugar Corporation (FSC) has harassed union representatives (up to and including physical violence) and collective bargaining has been suppressed.
The Fiji Sugar Workers’ and General Union (FSWGU), the most influential in Fiji, has had enough. It argues that workers’ wages have fallen by 40% in real terms over the seven years since the coup. It says that while workers were willing to make some sacrifices in the light of the difficult times the industry has gone through, they can take no more and the FSC’s finances have recovered enough to make further restraint unnecessary. Other grievances – apart from the attacks on freedom of association and collective bargaining – include inadequate health insurance coverage, unpaid overtime and short-time working due to shorter and shorter milling seasons.
Despite threats from the government; military and police oversight of the union’s strike ballot; and employers telling workers that the authorities will be informed if they vote for a strike, and despite a pre-emptory pay offer from management of a 5% plus wage rise and other benefits, 67.5% of the workforce have voted to take industrial action by a 9:1 margin, fulfilling the legal requirements for a strike. The FSWGU is now considering its next step as the Government pleads with the workers and threatens that a strike will be met with military occupation of the mills.
The TUC has sent a message of solidarity to the FSWGU (as has the Maritime Union of Australia), and – like the ITUC, ACTU and NZCTU – we have been preparing for further solidarity action if a strike is called and the military intervene. ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said:
“The ITUC condemns these extremely serious violations of freedom of association. The regime has shown nothing but contempt for the rule of law and the interests of its own citizens. This thuggish behaviour, in addition to the previous beatings, arbitrary arrests, surveillance of unionists and the wholesale gutting of the nation’s labour laws, is why workers around the world are calling for the establishment of an ILO Commission of Inquiry this year. This rogue regime must be stopped.”
We are also preparing for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in the autumn, where Fiji’s suspension is likely to be reaffirmed unless serious steps are taken to restore democracy and human and trade union rights.