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Analysis: Union Fight Brings Together Strange Political Bedfellows

The idiom, politics makes strange bedfellows, aptly applies to the current trade union agitation. The Fiji Trades Union Congress-organised march in Suva last Saturday revealed some interesting developments. Two arch
24 Oct 2017 12:56
Analysis: Union Fight Brings Together Strange Political Bedfellows
The Fiji Trades Union Congress-organised march in Suva on October 21, 2017. Photo: Ronald Kumar

The idiom, politics makes strange bedfellows, aptly applies to the current trade union agitation.

The Fiji Trades Union Congress-organised march in Suva last Saturday revealed some interesting developments.

Two arch rivals, Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry and Fiji Trades Union Congress general secretary Felix Anthony, marched side by side beaming with exuberance. On Mr Chaudhry’ right was Rajeshwar Singh, the general secretary of the Fiji Public Service Association. Mr Singh once contested Mr Anthony’s post in the FTUC annual general meeting. It was a tense contest, marked by the withdrawal of the FPSA membership from FTUC.

It looks like FPSA is back in the FTUC fold now.

Mr Anthony, once a Mahendra Chaudhry protégé in the FTUC when Mr Chaudhry was FTUC general secretary, did not like Mr Chaudhry’s leadership style in the FLP. Up until that time the majority of unionized workers supported the FLP.

Mr Anthony split from the FLP and with Adi Sivia Qoro (now with Unity Fiji) and Lynda Tabua formed the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Ms Tabuya is now PDP leader. Both the FLP and PDP failed to win a seat in the 2014 general election because they split the workers’ votes.

Ms Tabuya marshalled the marchers on Saturday rallying the people on sidestreets to join the demonstration.

The march took on a political complexion. This was more than an FTUC march. It was a march of those opposed to the FijiFirst Government and its industrial relations policies. Their claimed grievances include their right to have a secret ballot for strike action, individual contracts and a call for a $4 minimum national wage rate.

The Government is being demonised by the unions on these issues.

But many are already receiving more than $4 an hour wage rate. The $4 an hour translates to $160 a week. The group that this FTUC campaign is targeting includes domestic workers, labourers and drivers. This is where it gets tricky because not all employers, especially the small businesses, can afford the $4 an hour wage rate.

What had started as a fight by the Confederation of Public Sector Unions (CPSU) against individual contracts escalated into a broader campaign by the Fiji Trades Union Congress which has taken ownership of the $4 minimum wage rate call. That was incorporated into the confederation grievances. Mr Anthony applied for the march permit and the FTUC organized the event.

PDP leader Ms Tabuya became the voice of the marchers working in tandem with her   party colleague Mr Anthony, her PDP predecessor.

The march was also supported by the Fijian Teachers Association (FTA), a constituent member of the Fiji Islands Council of Trade Unions (FICTU), a rival to the FTUC. But FICTU’s general secretary Attar Singh, who is aligned to the National Federation Party, was not a party to the march.

The FTA which had gone through the confederation to support the march is understood to be backed by SODELPA.

So the march was politically charged to try to discredit Government policies and efforts to implement those policies. It was also designed to create a perception of a Government that is not responsive to the  workers.

Apart from FTA there are other trade unions under FICTU that are not part of this campaign. The NFP, by the way, wants a $5 an hour minimum wage rate. This lack of unity among the FTUC and FICTU weakens the campaign. Then there are smaller unions, like the Construction Energy and Timber Workers Union and Manufacturing, Commerce and Allied Employees Staff Union that are not affiliated to either the FTUC or FICTU. The members of these small unions fight their battles on their own fronts. The FTUC and FICTU have no direct input there.

FTUC and FICTU should be helping members of these small unions better their pay and working conditions.

But, instead, Government is being targeted because it is the largest employer and civil servants, members of the FPSA, are the biggest group of workers in the FTUC and FICTU. Under the current reforms, Government will become one of the best, if not, the best employer in the country.

Under the individual contracts which the unions are opposing, salary increases and promotion will be performance-based. There will be transparency and accountability. The reforms will encourage enterprise, initiative and productivity and lift the standard of professionalism in the civil service. The product will be efficient service delivery and people will benefit from it.

The public sector unions want to retain the old system of across the board pay rise which is out of kilter with the best  modern practices.

This employment issue is definitely now in the political arena and is beginning to look like the run-up to the 1987 general election.

But the split in the union ranks and the political fragmentation make it difficult for the labour movement to repeat what it achieved in the 1987 election which saw the defeat of the Alliance Government.

Maybe that memory is why Mr Chaudhry, Mr Anthony and Mr Singh stood together and marched to the tune of conductor Ms Tabuya on Saturday.

Which brings the next question – can FLP and PDP genuinely bury the hatchet and amalgamate? I doubt it because of the old distrust and differences that have kept Mr Chaudhry and Mr Anthony apart all these years.

Feedback:  nemani.delaibatiki@fijisun.com.fj

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