By Norm Dixon
Production at the Australian-owned Vatukoula gold mine on Fiji's north-west coast remains at a virtual standstill as 900 determined miners continue their strike. Anger on the mass picket lines has reached boiling point following Emperor Gold Mining Limited's (EGML) sacking of strikers.
The workers are demanding recognition of their union, the Fiji Mine Workers Union (FMWU) so that their many grievances can be addressed.
By law, 50% of the workers must join the union to secure legal recognition, a figure that the union says has been easily surpassed but which EGML refuses to concede. The government has refused to send officials to confirm the figure.
The miners walked out on February 27, and hundreds of union members have maintained pickets despite heavy intimidation by 60 armed riot police — housed and fed by the company — and threats by the government.
From the beginning the company has had the military-backed "interim administration" behind it. On March 20, the Fiji Trades Union Congress was forced to lift a total ban on the mine after the minister for employment and industrial relations, Taniela Veitata, declared the bans illegal.
Picket lines have been very effective; only a trickle of ore is reaching the mill from stockpiles. Attempts by management to bring in scabs have been frustrated.
On April 3, EGML sacked 420 strikers. The FMWU members refused to accept letters of dismissal. Company executives were reduced to throwing the letters through open windows or poking them through cracks in walls of miners' homes.
The workers' response was to strengthen the picket lines. FMWU secretary Kavekini Navuso told the Daily Post that 700 members were now actively picketing and had formed a human chain from the main gate to the mill. On April 5 the workers briefly stopped processing at the mill when 60 workers invaded the area.
Veitata issued a thinly veiled threat against the miners following the sackings, accusing the FMWU of allowing "a frightful situation of anarchy and lawlessness to prevail".
The opposition Fiji Labour Party-led coalition has attacked the hypocrisy of the government and company. Secretary General Navin Maharaj said that "when it comes to protecting the interests of the workers — even when they are almost wholly indigenous Fijians — the Interim Administration sides with the powerful employers. It is now clear why Mr Reid [EGML's chairperson] supported the destabilisation activities that led to the deposition of the Bavadra Government: it has to do with his own economic interests."
The FMWU has demanded that the government deport Jeffrey Reid er of the Vatukoula mine, Andrew Cullum.
Reid, a New Zealander, came to Emperor in 1970. For the next seven years he led a series of bitter fights against miners, ending in mass sackings and the smashing of their unions. The lack of a union at the mine for the next 10 years left wages and conditions appalling.
The FMWU has called on the Australian government to pressure the Australian-owned company to agree to the workers' demands. Foreign minister Gareth Evans has refused, claiming that the dispute is a matter for the union, the mine owners and the Fiji government to resolve.
The striking miners desperately need financial help and solidarity messages. They can be sent to: the Fiji Mine Workers Union, c/- Fiji Trades Union Congress, P.O. Box 1418, Suva.