NEW ZEALAND: Solidarity grows for Tongan strikers

September 7, 2005

As the Tongan civil service strike entered its sixth week, New Zealand trade unionists, the expatriate Tongan community, social justice activists and church groups are organising support and solidarity.

The strike commenced on July 22, following the introduction of a new pay structure by the Tongan government. The new structure was a performance-based scheme with little regard for seniority or experience; as a result, some workers got substantial raises while others got very little. This occurred shortly after members of parliament awarded themselves a 57% pay rise, which had raised civil servants' expectations of a comparable increase.

The new pay structure was also introduced with no consultation between the public service commission and the civil servants. For many of them, the first they knew about the new pay structure was when they received their pay packet. The civil servants met and decided to "peacefully walk home" in protest, beginning the first strike in Tonga's history.

Up to 2000 workers are on strike, and have widespread support from the general population. Supporters are providing food and money is coming in from Tongan expatriates in NZ, Australia and the US.

Pangaii Sii, a public park in the Tongan capital Nukualofa, has become an organising centre with rallies of striking workers held daily. On August 25, 200 strikers from the outlying island of Eua travelled to Nukualofa, marching from the wharf to Pangaii Sii with trucks full of produce for the strikers following behind.

Efforts to settle the strike have so far failed. A team of mediators including a retired employment court judge and the president of the NZ Council of Trade Unions, Ross Wilson, flew from NZ to Tonga on July 25 at the request of the Tongan government. However, the government demanded that the strikers return to work pending the outcome of the negotiations.

The civil servants stated that they would only return to work if the government granted a 60% pay rise. When the government refused, the strikers refused to meet with the negotiating team. On returning to NZ, Wilson called on NZ unions to support the strike.

Although the leaders of the strike have said that they believe the dispute can be settled peacefully, many both inside and outside Tonga believe that the dispute has the potential to develop into a movement for fundamental democratic change.

Tonga is dominated by the royal family and nobles descended from the traditional chiefs. Two-thirds of MPs are appointed by the king and one of his sons, Prince Ulukala Lavaka Ata, is prime minister for life. While traditional Tongan culture is based on respect for the authority of the royal family and nobles, there has been increasing dissatisfaction with the widespread corruption in the government and scandals involving dodgy business dealings of various royal family members.

There has also been rising dissatisfaction among Tongans with the contrast between the luxurious lifestyles enjoyed by the royals and the poverty of many of their subjects.

Representatives of the Tongan Public Service Association, as the strikers are now officially known, recently visited NZ to gather support. Over the past few weeks, members of NZ's 40,000 strong Tongan community have been fundraising for the strikers. This has coincided with the visit to Auckland of Tonga's King Taufaahau Tupou IV for medical tests.

Angry protests took place outside the king's residence, with representatives of the Tongan community demanding to speak to the king to express their support for the strike. Their requests were denied by the king's security staff, resulting in some scuffles between the king's staff and protesters.

Two members of the PSA's strike committee addressed a meeting called by the Workers' Charter on August 26, which was attended by a number of union and social justice activists.

Dr Ana Akauola is in charge of radiology at Vaiola Hospital. She explained to the meeting that she was taking part in the strike despite having received a 28% salary increase, because others received nothing. She outlined the demands of the strike for increases of 60% for the higher grades, 70% for middle grades and 80% for the lowest grades, many of whom receive the equivalent of NZ$3000 per year.

Sione Fifita, a cleaner employed by the ministry of works, explained that under the new structure, the people he had trained were earning more than him. He stressed that the civil servants had tried to negotiate with the government, but had been rejected. "The prime minister flew out on holiday instead of trying to solve the dispute", said Fifita.

When the question of broader democratic rights was raised, the strike committee representatives stressed that many strikers wanted at this stage to focus on the "60-70-80" demand, and did not want to express broader demands. However, they acknowledged that there was growing support for democratic change.

Alani Taione, a member of Auckland's Tongan community who has been actively organising support for the strike, was much more outspoken, saying that the Tongan government needed to be removed.

The strikers also addressed a public meeting in Auckland attended by 180 people on August 27. The meeting was also addressed by politicians, church leaders and representatives of the Tongan government.

One of the politicians addressing the meeting was NZ Greens MP and foreign affairs spokesperson Keith Locke, who had just returned from visiting Tonga. On his return, he issued a press release calling on the NZ government to support the strike and the movement for democracy.

"New Zealand now needs to put its weight more squarely on the side of the majority of Tongans, who want to move to a constitutional monarchy, where representative government replaces aristocratic rule", Locke said. "Civil servants know that one of the reasons their wages are so miserable is that much of the wealth of the country is going to support a luxurious lifestyle for their rulers.

"The movement for democracy now has unstoppable momentum with workers, pro-democracy politicians, and many business and church leaders all working together. These people welcome support for democratic change, and think it can make a difference. They really appreciated my going to Tonga with a solidarity message from the Green Party."

Unionists and representatives from the Tongan community have organised a rally and march through Auckland's central business district in support for the Tongan strikers to take place on September 3.

On September 1, the PSA strike committee issued a demand for the cabinet to resign and for a democratically elected parliament. In response, the government stated that it would pay the 60-80% pay rises on an interim basis and negotiate a long-term agreement if the strikers returned to work.

According to news reports, the members of cabinet, led by Princess Regent Salote Pilolevu Tuita, walked to the strikers to personally announce the offer. The PSA strike committee stated on September 2 that it would put a written offer to its members.

From Green Left Weekly, September 7, 2005.
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