By Satendra Prasad
SUVA — Fires destroyed a mining shaft and heavy equipment, causing F$800,000 damage, as the strike by more than 850 members of the Fiji Mine Workers Union (FMWU) entered its 10th week.
The fires broke out early on May 7, first engulfing a mine winder and associated electrical equipment and then spreading to other heavy mine machinery. The mine manager's office and other staff offices were firebombed. It took over an hour for the fire tenders to bring the blazes under control.
The resident mine manager, Andrew Cullum, immediately accused the strikers. "It seems the original moderate campaign has been taken over by more militant union members and external unemployed who are bent on closing the mine", he said.
The general secretary of the FMWU, Kavekini Navuso, denied any union involvement in the arson. "The fires could have been set by Emperor employees, trying to frame union members", he countered. Because the FMWU "has stepped up its picketing in the mine area, it gives the company good reason to put the blame on us".
The workers are demanding that the company recognise their union. Over 80% of the workforce, according to the Australian-owned Emperor Gold Mining Limited's own submission to the High Court, are now members of the union.
Gold is Fiji's third largest export industry, and is controlled by (EGML). The mine is managed under contract by its former owner, the giant Australian-based Western Mining Corporation.
With no gold exports for the past three weeks, the company and the government are getting desperate in their efforts to defeat the strikers.
EGML and Western Mining have historically been very close to Fiji's rulers. In 1977 the mine was able to convince the government to fork out over F$1 million to subsidise its operations.
In the same year, the workers struck for better pay and working conditions. The company retaliated by firing all the strikers. The government, led by the current prime minister, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, eased public tension by absorbing most of the sacked workers in the construction of a large hydroelectricity project in central Viti Levu, Fiji's main island.
Kavekini Navuso reminded delegates to a recent Fiji Trades Union Congress meeting of EGML's role in destabilising the Labour-led coalition government in 1987.
Roadblocks aimed at undermining the government led by the late Dr Timoci Bavadra were set up in Vatukoula — the gold-mining town — with company approval. The Bavadra government, according to former foreign minister Krishna Datt, was about to begin an inquiry the company and its managing director, Jefferey Reid.
Navuso alleged that the company is keeping local police on its payroll and feeding and looking after their welfare. More than 50 riot police have been deployed, in addition to the local police, around the mine area.
Violence broke out in the mining town of Tavua on April 25 when several strikers turned up at the local court to face charges of unlawful picketing. A group of villagers hired by the company to provide "security" at the mine arrived and began bashing striking workers and their supporters. Five people were critically injured and taken to the divisional hospital in Lautoka.
The police stood by and did nothing to stop this unprovoked attack. They acted only when the magistrate walked out of his chamber and directed them to intervene. No arrests were made at the time. Police later approached the chiefs of Tavua in the traditional customary manner and asked for the thugs to be handed over to local police.
The whole town and the mine were under self-imposed curfew for several days afterwards while union officials tried to cool down the strikers' tempers. At the next court appearance of the mineworkers, on April 29, a procession of more than 1000 supporters accompanied those charged.
The company has deployed additional security personnel around the mine area. Navuso said that EGML has hired 40 Tavua villagers at $14 a day.
Early in the strike, the company sacked 420 striking miners. In a public advertisement on May 4, it offered to re-employ at least 200 if they returned to work. This has failed to break the solidarity of the strikers.
The government has rejected an application by the mineworkers to register a dispute under the industrial relations laws, even though a High Court judge has already ruled that a dispute exists. Instead, it has instituted a commission of inquiry. Navuso condemned this move.
The FMWU is refusing to cooperate with the commission because it fears that the findings will never be implemented. The report of an inquiry into the 1977 dispute has never been acted on by the government.
The strike has attracted widespread local and international support. Sister unions in Australia, Europe and New Zealand have contributed over $25,000 to help the strikers.
The Fiji Trades Union Congress has opened a solidarity fund and levied a $1 contribution on all members of its affiliates. It has also attracted extensive public support in its street collections. Several local organisations have been regularly visiting the miners at Vatukoula offering food and cash.