Despite strong opposition from trade unions at home and the international community, the interim government has gone ahead with the enforcement of Decree 35 with the promulgation of Regulations that identify essential industries covered under the Decree.
The National Farmers Union had written to the interim Prime Minister a month ago denouncing the Decree as “the most draconian and virulent attack to date on the rights of workers of Fiji”, and called for it to be revoked.
Excerpts from the letter are reproduced below:
12 August 2011
Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama
Prime Minister’s Office
Dear Prime Minister
re: Essential National Industries (Employment)
Decree 35 2011 and trade union matters
We write to register our strong opposition to the gazetting of Decree 35 of 2011, the Essential National Industries (Employment) Decree.
While we note that the Decree is yet to come into force, it is, undoubtedly, the most draconian and virulent attack to date on the rights of workers of Fiji, in particular, the right of association and assembly, and specifically, the right of workers to organise freely and form trade unions of their own choice. It also deprives them of their right to free collective bargaining.
These measures not only violate the existing provisions of our own law – the Employment Relations Promulgation 2007 – but also contravene ILO Conventions 87 and 98 which Fiji ratified on 17 April 2002 and 19 April 1974, respectively.
Article 3 of Convention 87 guarantees workers’ the right to draw up their own constitution and rules, to elect their representatives in full freedom and to organise their administration and functions without interference from public authorities. Furthermore, it specifically states that “…the law of the land shall not be such as to impair, nor shall it be so applied as to impair, the guarantees provided for in this Convention”.
ILO Convention 98 guarantees workers the right to organise and engage in collective bargaining without interference from the State.
Prime Minister, we strongly believe that misguided and reactionary elements are at work in influencing your government in resorting to such drastic measures to crush union activity in Fiji. They are misguided in thinking that Fiji can only achieve economic and corporate growth if workers and their unions are made completely subservient to employers and the authorities, which, regrettably, is what the Decree sets out to achieve.
Enlightened governments and employers with a social conscience will be the first to admit that productivity and growth will only occur in an environment where workers receive fair pay and working conditions. The days of bonded labour have long gone and we live not in the 19th but the 21st Century.
You are aware that poverty levels in Fiji are already at a shocking 45% of the population and still climbing. At least 65% of our workers are paid wages below the poverty line. Furthermore, there is gross inequity in the distribution of national wealth with 85% of it being concentrated in the hands of the top 20% of our society.
Decree 35 with its assault on the rights of workers and their ability to organise freely and engage effectively in the process of collective bargaining processes, will further aggravate the lack of equity in the distribution of wealth in our country. The Decree is blatantly in favour of the employer in the essential industries it targets.
Prime Minister, we call on you to take heed of the very strong denunciations of the Decree by the international community, and I refer to the statements issued by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Amnesty International and the International LabourOrganisation.
We have seen two other very disturbing developments concerning the rights and privileges of employees and their representative unions in the public service. We refer here to:
• Decree 21 of 2011 which removes the public service employees
from the ambit of the Employment Relations Promulgation 2007
•The withdrawal of check off (at source deduction of union
dues) facility provided to trade unions in the public service.
These actions are, in our view, aimed at rendering the public sector unions totally ineffective and, more disturbingly, destroying their financial base. The same is now being contemplated for workers and unions in State-owned enterprises by the promulgation of the infamous Decree 35.
In withdrawing the check-off facility, government seems unmindful of the fact that public sector unions provide a range of social benefits to their members which should rightly be the responsibility of the State – benefits such as free medical consultancy locally, assistance with overseas medical treatment, bereavement assistance and a retirement allowance. These will definitely be affected adversely if unions face financial constraints with the removal of the check off facility.
The utterances of your Attorney General and media statements by the Information Ministry on this issue (withdrawal of check-off) signal employers in the private sector that should they wish to follow suit, the State would not intervene.
Many see these developments as deliberately designed to serve a wider political agenda to completely uproot the trade union movement, leaving the workers at the total mercy of their employers.
Prime Minister, Fiji has a responsibility to honour its obligations and commitments under the various international conventions, declarations and agreements it has ratified. But, above all, let it be known that no government – even an elected government – has the right or the mandate to enact oppressive laws that violate the universally recognized human rights of its citizens.
It must be said that Fiji is the only State among the island nations of the Pacific with such a deplorable record of human rights violations, and ill-treatment of its workers. Not only will such measures drive more of our skilled workforce away from Fiji, it will also have a detrimental effect on potential investors and our already low investment levels.
Prime Minister, we call on you to forthwith revoke the regressive, repressive and draconian Decree 35. The alternative would be to invite international rebuke and condemnation and face further sanctions which would impact negatively on our already fragile economy.
We trust good sense and wise judgment will prevail over the harmful designs of reactionary elements in our society.
Mahendra P. Chaudhry