New Union Chapter

Fiji entered a new chapter in its history of trade unionism yesterday. Congratulations to those elected at the first union election supervised by the Fijian Elections Office. The Coral Coast
15 Feb 2015 08:37

Fiji entered a new chapter in its history of trade unionism yesterday. Congratulations to those elected at the first union election supervised by the Fijian Elections Office.

The Coral Coast Tourism and Catering Workers Union became the first trade union to hold its elections under the new rules. It was a historic moment because it gave birth to real transparency and accountability in the trade union electoral process.

It is therefore a matter of grave concern that a week ago,  the Fiji Trades Union Congress, a collection of 26 affiliates, was able to hold its own elections through a technical loophole. The loophole is that the FTUC is not registered as a trade union so the Supervisor of Elections Mohammed Saneem has no jurisdiction over it. Yet on its website, the FTUC brags “it is the biggest trade union movement in Fiji”. It says of its meeting and elections: “Amidst the drama, the votes, the elections, the squabbles, the showing of hands, one thing was certainly clear at the 45th Biennial Delegates Conference of the FTUC. Democracy was well and truly alive and in action within the biggest trade union movement in Fiji.”

It’s surprising that the “biggest trade union movement in Fiji”, which receives fees from its affiliates, represents workers in tripartite boards and committees and attends ILO conferences, is not registered as a trade union. If it is not a trade union, then what is it registered as? While it says it is not accountable to anyone except its affiliates, those affiliates file annual reports/returns to the Registrar of Trade Unions. It can only be assumed that it has some form of legal entity that allows it to operate the way it is.

The Minister for Employment, Productivity and Industrial Relations, Jioji Konrote, should clear the air by making a statement on the status of FTUC as soon as possible. The reason is that the FTUC wields a lot of power and influence over its affiliate members.  Its current leadership is well known for its militant stand against this Government. It has extended its battle to the political arena under the banner of the People’s Democratic Party.

The Essential Industry Decree is among legislations that the FTUC has been fighting against. It has also protested the Electoral Decree which it claims takes away trade unions’ rights to conduct their own elections Attempts by the Government to rein in trade unions about their industrial and political roles are neither unique to Fiji nor new in its labor history.

Much of the early industrial turmoil in Fiji was in the sugar industry.

In 1942 the colonial state, largely under British government pressure, was forced to introduce the Industrial Associations Ordinance to tackle trade union militancy. The Fiji Industrial Workers’ Congress was founded in 1951 and renamed the Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC) in 1967.

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, industrial unrest in the key sectors of the sugar, oil, gold, and tourism industries threatened to spill over into widespread instability. The period 1964 to 1966 saw a flurry of legislation passed to regulate trade disputes, workers’ compensation, employment conditions, and industrial training. Following the disruptive 1959 oil workers’ strike, the Trade Unions Act 1964 introduced compulsory registration for trade unions.

After Independence in 1970 industrial confrontation reappeared during a period of economic stagnation. Restrictive trade union legislation was introduced in 1973. The Trade Disputes Act made it more difficult for workers to take industrial action, especially in essential services.

Solidarity strikes were declared illegal and a wage freeze was introduced, which subsequently gave way to wage guidelines. With the establishment of the Tripartite Forum, the second-half of the 1970s saw reasonably amicable relations among the FTUC, employers, and the government.

In the run-up to the 1987 general election, the trade unions took their grievances to the political arena and formed the Fiji Labour Party.

On the other side of the world, Margaret Thatcher, the then British Prime Minister, took the unions head-on and refused to bow down to their demands. She pushed her policy of mine closures and privatisation. She also introduced radical reforms of trade union legislation in 1972 and 1974.  As a result she went on to win the next election.As the unions’ bargaining power weakened, they sought new means of influence, and the “new realism” took hold, looking for partnership rather than confrontation with employers. This pragmatic approach may be the way to go for the FTUC instead of its militant position.



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