Opinion: Strained Labour Relations – Fiji’s Dilemma

Vincent Lobendahn, a minister in Sitiveni Rabuka’s SVT Government, led a team that studied the model in Singapore in 1998. The team included Hector Hatch (employers’ representative) and unionists James
14 Aug 2015 13:39
Opinion: Strained Labour Relations – Fiji’s Dilemma
Vincent Lobendhan.

Vincent Lobendahn, a minister in Sitiveni Rabuka’s SVT Government, led a team that studied the model in Singapore in 1998. The team included Hector Hatch (employers’ representative) and unionists James Raman and Daniel Urai.

It is disappointing to realise that four months have gone by since our three social partner representatives (employers, trade unions and government) signed a tripartite agreement in Geneva and since then no further news has been heard about the next normal expectation – the formulation and signing of a formal tripartite Declaration or Charter by our three social partners.
There is a real need for these three parties to sit down and come to a common understanding and conviction that the future economic and social well-being of our people depends primarily on the continued expansion of the Fiji economy through accelerated agricultural, industrial and service industry growth.
Our nation could be faced with serious outside threats that is economic downturns, possible oil crisis, devaluation of related currencies etc. In this scenario, old and new businesses face the same threats. Everyone needs to realise that concerted effort is extremely important for the ongoing expansion of businesses in Fiji.
The highly competitive international market has to be faced all the time and regular adjustments need to be made to ensure the competitiveness of our manufactured products.
Workers, employers and the government must pool their efforts and strive for a continuing increase in productivity and output in all business enterprises.
Higher productivity leads to better wages and working conditions, lower prices for consumerslocal and overseas markets, and ultimately – adequate investment returns, continuing expansion of production capacities and higher levels of employment.
All these can only be achieved through the closest collaboration between workers and employers on a common understanding of Economic Progress through “Tripartite Partnership, Justice and Peace.”


Singapore’s experiences with tripartism developed during the period of industrial strife in the 1950’s and 1960’s. During these years, Fiji was experiencing similar labour relations difficulties.
The then Singapore government decided to approach that nation’s trade unions and employers to begin working in partnership to tackle labour – management issues whilst at the same time promoting productivity in all enterprises plus a fair sharing annually of that economic development and growth.
Unfortunately, Fiji never reached the point where a formal tripartite Agreement could be signed and become the rules of the partnership and relationship.
Tripartite co-operation experienced in Singapore showed that it required time, effort and commitment on the part of the three social partners to work together to achieve it.
As mentioned earlier, labour – management relations during the 1950’s and 1960’s in Singapore were confrontational and adversarial.
It was only after two to – three decades of working together among the social partners that a co-operative relationship was fostered and strengthened.
Singapore’s social partners subsequently realised that it was through cooperation that economic progress could be better achieved and this in turn would benefit the employers, workers and the nation.
I am of the view that tripartite co-operation can be nurtured and realised in Fiji if there is determination and a clear direction to promote the mutuality of interest among our three social partners.
With a clear purpose, commitment and understanding of the advantages of tripartite co-operation, I have no doubt that Fiji will not only be able to overcome current difficulties but will also be able to achieve a high level of tripartite co-operation necessary for economic growth and a better life for the people of Fiji.
In this respect, I suggest that efforts be made to make the employer and worker federations more representative and unified.
This will allow more focused discussions and facilitate implementation of policies derived by tripartite consultation. However, each representative national organisation must be fully representative of the diverse groups and ensured of their support without being over concerned with narrow factional interests.
The Economic Consultative Council established by the Singapore government before that nation’s first formal tripartite Industrialisation Charter was signed by the three social partners on January 15, 1965 paved the way for all other national bodies relevant to economic and social issues to have a tripartite membership of equal numbers and a Chairman continues to prevail.
After his government was re – elected twice in the 1960’s, the late Lee Kuan Yew came to learn and realise an important fact – “that personal motivation and personal rewards were essential for a productive economy”.
This realisation later led to the establishment of the National Wages Council (NWC) consisting of equal number of representatives of employers; workers; and government. The chairman from 1972 to 1997 was Professor Lim Chong Yah, the Professor of Economics and Statistics at Singapore’s National Technical University. Today, the NWC consists of thirty (30) members and a chairman.
The chairman explained to me that his Council begins discussions in March each year and must have the annual wage guidelines sent to the Prime Minister before June 30th each year because they are always effective from July 1st each year since 1972. Whilst the annual wage guidelines are non – mandatory, all parties abide by them.Once agreed on by consensus, every member signs the recommendations. When Cabinet receives the Wage Guidelines, it is endorsed – never amended because government representatives were involved in the deliberations all along.
In Fiji, a crude and unfair mechanism exists – the tripartite Employment Relations Advisory Committee, which has no teeth because its role is to only advise the Minister for Labour. This is a serious deficiency of the Employment Relations Promulgation.
One wonders what depth of relevant knowledge and experience is possessed by members of the Advisory Committee. Are they competent to negotiate issues relating to inflation, exchange rates, unemployment, CPI, market forces, real and nominal wage ratesetc.
In Singapore, certain stipulations exist in relation to their National Wages Council:-
These annual wage guidelines apply to every worker in Singapore from the President to the lowest paid worker.
My five study visits to Singapore to gain an in- depth understanding on how many of their policies developed followed was precluded by two residential courses with Singapore and Malaysian government and private sector workers were of immense value in galvanising my thinking on labor – management relations and partnership in Singapore and Malaysia.
Fiji is some fifty odd years behind Singapore in the area of formal tripartite co-operation and the road ahead could be constrained with many road humps.
It is a pity that government politicians and senior bureaucrats have yet to formulate policies that could lead to decent wages being paid to all workers in Fiji.
The National Council for Building a Better Fiji (NCBBF) stated in its August, 2008 “State of the Nation and the Economy Report” which stated that the Council:- “believes political leadership at the national level to be one area of real weakness in Fiji”.
This may possibly be the root cause of Fiji’s slow, erratic and sluggish economic growth.
Singapore’s late first Prime Minister engaged Dr Albert Wisemius, a brilliant Dutch economist as his government’s economic advisor for twenty years beginning in the early 1960’s.
Fiji leaders need to get the basics right first. Our Prime Minister’s perceived lead advisor is a lawyer- why not also recruit a good economist people ask?
History shows that countries that establish inclusive economic and political institutions lead to prosperity while the majority of the nations in the world today have established extractive economic and political institutions which lead these nations to poverty, widespread joblessness and corruption.
Fiji with its many restrictive provisions in different laws and policies is a good example of an extractive nation of economic and political institutions.
Fiji has no alternative but to start getting the basics right.
Feedback: jyotip@fijisun.com.fj

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