FIJI: Workers lead growing opposition to coup

Issue 

Opposition to the George Speight's terrorist coup in Fiji is coming mainly from the Pacific island country's trade union movement. As it becomes clear that the military and the elite have done more to help rather than hinder Speight, wider sections of Fiji society are openly condemning the loss of democratic rule.

Farmers and workers in Fiji's vital sugar cane industry have been the most persistent in demanding that the elected Fiji Labour Party (FLP) government be reinstated. On June 14, Associated Press reported that most cane farmers had refused to harvest while Speight and his thugs hold Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and 30 members of parliament hostage.

The month-long boycott organised by the Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC) has closed three of the four sugar mills. The unions estimate that the boycott has cost Fiji up to $100 million. The media, business and the military have attacked the boycott. Unionists have been threatened with jail if they continue the strike. The military has announced that trade union activities are banned under martial law.

Two union leaders were detained briefly. On June 16, Felix Anthony, national secretary of the FTUC and general secretary of the Fiji Sugar and General Workers Union, was held for three hours.

Farmers and workers have been harassed by the military and pro-Speight thugs, particularly in the western part of Fiji's main island, Viti Levu. Thugs attempted to burn down the house of the assistant secretary of the FTUC Diwan Shankar on June 11. Two hundred workers at Rarawai sugar mill, Fiji's largest mill, walked off the job on June 21 to protest against intimidation.

The Melbourne Age reported on June 22 that more than 400 Indian-Fijians have been forced to shelter in a school in Lautoka, following violence that has swept through some districts. Some farmers are being blocked from working their leases.

Public sector unions have rejected the 20% pay cut, beginning August 1, that has been imposed by the military administration. The military claims the cuts are necessary because of the economic turmoil caused by the political crisis. The military has threatened redundancies if the pay cut is not implemented.

The Confederation of Public Sector Unions, which includes the Fiji Nurses Association, Fiji Teachers Association, Viti National Workers Union, Fiji Public Service Association and Fiji Public Employees Union, is organising a protest against the pay cut.

The Methodist church, which is supported by most Melanesian Fijians, has made belated appeals to parishioners not to support Speight's coup and called for the hostages to be released. David Robie reported on USP Journalism Online <http://www.journalism.uts.edu.au> on June 14 that 12 churches said in a statement: "The evils of May 19 are illegal and a violation of God's Word".

On June 11, a "people's petition" calling for more than 500,000 signatures opposing the coup was launched and received 2500 responses in the first few hours. The petition reads: "We do not recognise the abrogation of the Constitution of the Fiji Islands or the removal of our President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, and the elected government of Mr Mahendra Chaudhry".

The Fiji Youth and Students League (FYSL) has also backed the FTUC bans. The FYSL called on governments which had not already imposed bans on Fiji to consider doing so.

The Fiji Women's Rights Movement has organised a "Blue Ribbon Release Campaign" in which opponents of the coup wear ribbons as way to call for the immediate release of the hostages and for a return to democracy.

As Speight and the military continue to negotiate a deal, Chaudhry managed to have a message smuggled out of the parliamentary complex urging unionists and workers in Fiji to continue the struggle and calling for bans to be extended.

FTUC assistant national secretary Diwan Shankar, in Australia to pressure the Australian government to take a stronger stand against Speight and the military, told Workers Online that once Chaudhry and the members of the FLP government are released they are likely to establish an alternative government-in-exile. "I think generally people will support him because he has got the largest numbers, freely elected, in a constitutional parliament."

Shankar said that Fiji's employing class supported the anti-FLP protests which led up to the coup because they opposed new labour laws, which were only days away from being passed, that would have reinstated trade union rights taken away by the anti-Labour coups in 1987. "Our unions' organising strengths would have increased, especially in the manufacturing area and the tax-free zone areas, where the large masses of workers are now employed."

BY MARK ABBERTON

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