By Norm Dixon
In a remarkable turn of events, the recently elected government of Fiji, led by coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka, is applying pressure on the Australian-owned Emperor gold mine's management to recognise the Fiji Mine Workers Union. The mine's 700 workers have been on strike for over 18 months.
The strike began in February 1991 after the company refused to recognise the FMWU's right to negotiate better wages and conditions on behalf of its members. Union members were victimised and 420 sacked when they went on strike.
During the course of the dispute the military-backed government fully supported the company. Violent clashes between strikers, scabs and police have occurred on the picket lines. Police have used truncheons and tear gas against the strikers. In one incident, a government bailiff was killed as he attempted to evict striking miners from their company-owned houses.
Following the May general election, the new government has moved to defuse the dispute. It seems the Rabuka ministry wants to boost its popularity among working-class and urban "indigenous" Fijians, most of whom support the multiracial Fijian Labor Party, by not always siding with the employers and elite chiefs.
According to Trades Union Congress organiser Ema Druavesi, soon after the election the government asked the Ministry of Labour to "take actions that will help resolve the issue". The ministry urged the FMWU to recruit new members to the union from among the mine's work force, hinting that it would soon move to force the company to recognise the union.
Police are now avoiding the dispute because it is an industrial matter. "The local police are now refusing to enforce eviction notices against strikers", said Druavesi. "There is no longer a direct link between the company and the government ... Amongst parliamentarians there is agreement that the issue has to be resolved."
Over recent weeks, the differences between the government and company over the handling of the strike have become a slanging match on the front pages of Fiji's newspapers. On August 24, minister of labour and industrial relations Militoni Leweniqila told the Daily Post that "the unethical exploitation of the Fiji labour market should not be happening in this day and age".
Leweniqila's remarks were in response to reports quoting Emperor's general manager, Colin Patterson, as saying that the mine's workers did not want to join the union. Dismissing this claim, the minister said that in June Patterson had agreed to a secret ballot of the miners, conducted by the Labour Ministry, to determine their views on
When the time came to organise the vote, said Leweniqila, "management changed their mind and said their Australian bosses have advised against the conduct of the ballot". He also accused mine management of "liaising and directly communicating with top government people who they hope will throw a spanner into the works to avoid the successful recognition of the union".
"It is not who is right or who is wrong but the sufferings of hundreds of indigenous workers whose cries have been heard in all corners of Fiji", Leweniqila told the Daily Post. "Many of these workers have been working at Vatukoula for years and it is home to them ... All that they are asking is recognition for bargaining status so that some improvements could be made to their terms and conditions of work."
The following day, Emperor spokesperson Ratu Meli Malani said the company was shocked by Leweniqila's statements. He threatened that closure of the mine or massive redundancies could not be ruled out. Ratu Meli questioned whether investment in Vatukoula was prudent under "the current scenario of lawlessness and an unsupportive minister of labour".
On August 26, Leweniqila announced that a six-person ministerial team would travel to the Vatukoula mine in an effort to end the dispute. The team will "try to persuade the Emperor Gold Mining company to recognise the Fiji Mine Workers Union", the minister said.
The company continues to claim the union has failed to recruit the 50% of the mine's work force necessary by law for a union to be recognised. Leweniqila says the government may be forced to lower the minimum to 30% to force the company to recognise the union.