By Satendra Prasad
SUVA — Fiji's interim regime promulgated three decrees in the first week of November which, according to the Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC), "are aimed at crushing the trade union movements in the country".
Decrees 42, 43 and 44 bring into effect a string of draconian changes to Fiji's labour legislation. One of the more controversial is the removal of the "right to check-off" [automatic pay deductions] for union subscriptions. This comes into effect on December 1.
Most industrial unions in Fiji have a membership that is spread throughout the country and across different islands. Unions will find it difficult to organise subscription collections and will lose a lot of members.
FTUC general secretary Mahendra Chaudhry's view is that "this is a deliberate ploy by the interim regime to lower the rate of unionisation. Once membership declines to below 50% in any industry, then the employers can ask for a de-recognition of the trade union."
Several larger unions would immediately fall into this category. Chaudhry also warned that employers are already using their new-found freedom to do away with check-offs to force unions to accept low wage increases and harsh working conditions.
The decrees also make it mandatory for unions to take "secret workplace ballots" each time strike action is pursued. These ballots now have to be supervised by the government, and the results have to be approved by the Registrar of Trade Unions.
Unions must also conduct a state-supervised secret ballot "whenever international solidarity action is to be solicited". Furthermore, decree 44 redefines strike action to include work-to-rule bans, sick leave during strike periods and go-slows. The employer and the state have taken to themselves the right to define what constitutes strike action.
All the decrees also increase penalties for violations of the new procedures. Violations of the new decrees may result in jail sentences of up to two years.
The rights of industrial associations to deal with industrial disputes has been taken away. Workers rely upon industrial associations to protect their interests in industries that are difficult to organise. For example, it has been next to impossible to register a trade union in Fiji's garment industry, which operates under the export processing zone system. The Fiji Association of Garment Workers (FAGW) was formed to protect and safeguard the interests of garment workers.
Under the new decrees, this association cannot deal with any matter of an industrial nature, nor initiate strike action, nor have access to any of the state's industrial dispute-resolving procedures.
The FAGW has already defied the decrees and is currently dealing largest garment factory. While the regime has refused to register a dispute through the Ministry of Labour, it has yet to charge association organisers under the new decrees.
Unionists defying the decree, and who are prosecuted under the terms of the decree, will not be able to hold union office for five years after the time of conviction. "The regime will use this mechanism to neutralise the current FTUC leadership", says Chaudhry. The FTUC has remained the most powerful opposition to the interim regime since the first military coup of May 1987.
An FTUC emergency executive meeting held on November 24 issued a statement that said: "The decrees are a nakedly political assault on the trade union movement which has valiantly refused to capitulate to the regime's demands".
The statement continues: "The Ratu Mara administration is a neo-colonialist and fascist administration which exists for the elite. [This administration] has to be wiped out for the good of all the people of Fiji."
The FTUC decided that it would work towards a national strike. In the meantime it has called upon the international trade union movement, and in particular the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, for solidarity and support.