By Norm Dixon and Tom Jordan
Nine hundred mine workers at the Vatukoula gold mine on Fiji's west coast are on strike to gain recognition of their union from both the company and the government. They walked out on February 27. Vatukoula is owned by an Australian company, Emperor Gold Mining Limited (EGML).
Poor working, housing, safety and social conditions at the mine have been widely criticised, including accusations of apartheid-like discrimination. Ethnic Fijian and Indian workers who have not struck are not crossing the picket lines, which have been maintained during the mine's four daily shifts by at least 100 mine workers. About 100 European workers, who enjoy better wages, housing and conditions, are still at work.
Production from the mine's four shafts has stopped. Emperor has been forced to draw from its already low stockpile. The mine, Fiji's oldest and richest, produces 100,000 ounces of gold a year and earns around $700,000 per day.
On March 6, 20 workers employed by Nadi Construction Limited, which operates an open cut pit near Vatukoula, joined the strike despite police attempts to prevent them.
Fiji Mine Workers Union secretary Kavekini Navuso says that he must convince minister for employment and industrial relations Taniela Veitata that he has more than the 50% membership of mine workers needed for voluntary recognition. However, no government officials will visit the site to confirm the figure.
Management has refused for over a year to recognise the union. The Fiji Trade Union Congress (FTUC) has accused Veitata of siding with the owners. Fiji Mine Workers Union leaders claim up to 1000 out of 1200 workers have joined the union.
More than 300 workers attended the union's inaugural meeting last August 11. Many of these new union activists, especially those taking leadership positions, have been victimised by management.
The International Miners' Federation, whose Brussels-based general secretary, Peter Michalzik, recently visited Vatukoula, has described the conditions there as "appalling". "The federation is doubtful if internationally accepted conditions are being followed at Vatukoula mine", he said after an inspection of the mine.
Within days of Michalzik's visit, three workers were rushed to hospital after being gassed in the mine. The union claimed that mine workers were not issued with gas masks.
Emperor was controlled by the Australian-owned giant Western Mining Corporation until January, when it sold most of its stake to EGML. 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 there would be an investigation of accusations that d gold worth $5 million out of Fiji. Labour had made noises about nationalising the mine.
Conditions at the mine have not improved since the change in ownership. A study by the FTUC last year found that non-European workers, many of whom are on contract, are paid as little as $1.31 an hour. Contract workers work long hours and do not get overtime rates, public holiday pay or penalty rates.
With such low incomes, workers are forced to run up ever-greater debts with the company-owned supermarket to feed their families. These debts are deducted from pay packets. An investigation by the daily Fiji Times newspaper found that many workers had their entire pay deducted in this way each week. Others took home less than $10.
The mine owners racially segregate housing, with indigenous Fijians receiving the worst. The Fiji Times described the housing conditions as "appalling". Most company houses are old two-room buildings with no water or cooking facilities. Toilets, taps, bathing and washing facilities are shared by as many as six families.
Many workers must build ramshackle huts because of a shortage of even these inadequate buildings. In these areas, 50 people share just one bathroom. Pit toilets have had to be dug because the company has not emptied the septic tanks for two years. Barracks are provided for single men, each housing 100 people who must share three bathrooms, three toilets and a single kitchen. The Fiji Times described the barracks as "filthy and neglected".
The atmosphere at the mine is tense. Sixty armed riot police are trying to prevent picketers from stopping ore trucks. Two strikers were detained, then released, on March 7. There are growing fears that a bloody clash will occur. Mahendra Chaudhry, general secretary of the FTUC, told a meeting of mine workers to be on guard against provocations from the company and to conduct the strike in a peaceful manner.
The mine workers have received solidarity messages and donations from NZ Labourers Union, the NZ Council of Trades Unions and the United Mine Workers of Australia.