Fiji’s sugar mills: army comes calling
If you’d just taken a decision by secret ballot to strike over the fact that you hadn’t had a pay rise for seven years, how would you feel about the army coming round your workplace? Chances are that you’d think that was a bit over the top, and certainly pretty intimidating. Especially if you lived under a military dictatorship which has been censured by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and suspended from several multilateral bodies for human rights abuses and the 2006 coup which replaced a democratically elected government with the current military-led regime.
That’s the situation facing Fiji’s sugar mill workers at the moment, in a country where 60% of workers live below the poverty line. Earlier this month they took part – despite harassment from management and threats to dismiss strikers and import labour to replace them – in a legally watertight secret strike ballot which saw 90% of the union members calling for action over the seven year pay freeze.
The TUC and GMB (who organise the Tate & Lyle sugar workers who refine all of Fiji’s sugar exports) were among those expressing solidarity with the sugar workers’ union. The Government reacted by saying that, in the event of the strike happening, they would take over the mills. Now, the military who would probably be deployed to carry out that threat have been patrolling those mills.
This is clear harassment and intimidation, and it breaches the fundamental principles of freedom of association and freedom of speech. The International Trade Union Confederation has joined the Fiji TUC in condemning this intimidation, and they have been joined by the main trade unions in the region, in Australia and New Zealand. ACTU President Ged Kearney said:
“This is one step short of actual violence and we are fearful of what may happen next. We call on the Fijian government to immediately withdraw the military from the mill and allow the workers to exercise their rights.”