By Norm Dixon
Despite their picket lines being raided by armed riot police and strikers being jailed, evicted from their company-owned houses and physically attacked by company thugs, 700 workers at the Vatukoula gold mine in Fiji remain on strike after 15 gruelling months. The workers have again appealed to the international trade union movement for solidarity to help win their bitter struggle.
The workers walked out on February 27, 1991, after the company refused to recognise their union, the Fiji Mine Workers Union (FMWU). The Australian-owned Emperor Gold Mining Limited (EGML) refuses to discuss with the FMWU improvements in the mineworkers' low wage levels and appalling housing or an end to the apartheid-like practice of paying Europeans very high wages and providing them with the best houses. On April 3, 1991, the company sacked 420 strikers.
The government has backed the company at every turn. Although production has resumed with the use of scabs protected by riot police, inexperience has led to poor productivity. EGML has lost up to $20 million.
The management at the Emperor mine is notorious for its anti-union and anti-worker attitudes. EGML was controlled by the giant Australian-owned giant Western Mining Corporation until January 1991, when it sold most of its stake to its partners.
In 1977, company chairperson Jeffrey Reid smashed the union at the mine in a similar strike, and it seems he hopes to repeat that success. It took the mineworkers another 10 years to recover from that loss and re-establish their union. Management's refusal to recognise the new union ignited the present struggle.
In 1987, mine management organised demonstrations against the newly elected Fiji Labour Party-led coalition government and backed the subsequent military coup that deposed it. Before the coup, it appeared the FLP was to begin an investigation into accusations that EGML had smuggled gold worth $5 million out of Fiji. Sections of the Labour Party were calling for the mine's nationalisation.
The latest issue of Fiji Voice, published by the Fiji Independent News Service, reports that Fiji's High Court again sided with the company on May 3. It ruled that 436 workers sacked since the beginning of the strike had been dismissed legally and could not be considered to be on strike. It refused to allow the FMWU to legally represent them.
Hundreds of workers and their families remain in Vatukoula, and morale remains high. One striker told Fiji Voice: "The company couldn't sack all of us as they would have revealed that [union members employed at the mine] numbered 700, more than half of the work force. So they just sacked 400 or so of us." The company has refused union membership necessary for legal recognition had been achieved at the Emperor gold mine.
Fiji Voice found that union meetings continue to be well attended. "The support is still there. Only about 60 strikers have returned to work", FMWU secretary Kavekini Navuso said. "We're prepared to fight to the bitter end. The members aren't willing to put up with the terrible working, safety and living conditions any more."
The miners and their families are determined but feeling the strain of being without a regular income. Throughout 1991, donations from trade unions and other supporters outside Fiji were important in maintaining the strikers' strength. One of the most generous has been the Australian United Mineworkers' Federation. However, much more financial support is required.
Donations for theFMWU can be deposited at Westpac branches in Australia. The account is: Fiji Mine Workers' Union, Westpac Bank, Tavua Branch, account number 380 46000.
A video has also been made of the dispute called Na Ma'e! Na Ma'e! (the Fijian war cry: "We stand until we die"). It can be ordered in both Fijian and English language editions from the Fiji Independent News Service. Phone (02) 810 1336 or fax (02) 555 1252.