Threat to jail Fiji unionists

Wednesday, June 12, 1991

By Satendra Prasad

SUVA — The "interim" Fiji government led by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara has promulgated a "Protection of the National Economy" decree aimed at crushing both a boycott of the sugarcane harvest by farmers and the 14-week-long strike in the gold mining industry.

Farmers decided to boycott the harvest after the government reneged on its decision to hold Sugar Growers' Council elections this year. Farmers are also demanding the immediate payment of the third instalment of proceeds from the sale of last season's sugar crop. Harvesting was due to have begun at one of the mills on May 27 and at another on June 4.

The vast majority of Fiji's 21,000 sugar growers are members of the National Farmers Union.

The decree, promulgated on May 29, lays down stiff penalties for those seen to be inciting a boycott of the harvest. It imposes a 14-year jail sentence or a F$10,000 fine for individuals convicted of "acts or omissions that would, or are likely to, harm or cause substantial financial loss or damage to industry that will threaten the national economy and the economic life of the country".

The decree applies specifically to the sugar, gold mining, tourism, aviation, copra, electricity generation, transport and telecommunications sectors, but can be applied to any other sector at the discretion of the director of public prosecutions.

The government also amended the Sugar Industry Act to include such provisions. One amendment reads: "Any person who councils, invites or encourages to do an act or make an omission which hinders and is calculated to hinder the orderly production of sugar is liable upon conviction to a fine of up to $5000 and imprisonment of up to 7 years".

The "National Economy" decree holds that "where the person guilty of the offence is a body corporate, trade union, industrial association, or any organisation, liability for the offences extends to a director, officer and official of such a body".

The interim regime has mobilised provincial councils and landowners to pressure the farmers to call off their boycott. Many cases of intimidation and harassment have been reported to police, but no action has been taken.

Over 75% of sugarcane growers are Fijian-Indians who cultivate cane on land leased from indigenous landowners. Many landowners are threatening not to renew leases when they expire because of the farmers' refusal to harvest. Leases of Fijian-owned land expire in 1996. Some landowners have called on the government to revoke the leases of farmers who refuse to cut the cane.

Government ministers are travelling throughout the sugar districts in western Viti Levu and northern Vanua Levu holding meetings in order to e.

The NFU's secretary, Mahendra Chaudhry, said his union is undeterred by the new decree. The NFU will "not call off its boycott until all the demands are met".

Chaudhry addressed a major rally in the northern sugar town of Labasa on June 2 despite being denied a permit for the meeting. NFU members were refused access to the Labasa Civic Centre by police, but regrouped several blocks away at the office of the union. Police backed off after discussions between union leaders, the district officer and senior police.

Arsonists have destroyed several hundred acres of sugarcane in the western districts over the past two weeks. Most of the sugar destroyed belongs to members and officials of the NFU. No arrests have been made, although hundreds of police have been deployed in these areas, many drawn from Suva.

The general secretary of the Fiji Mine Workers Union (FMWU), Kavekini Navuso, has also condemned the decree and vowed to continue the strike at the Australian-owned Emperor gold mine on Viti Levu's west coast. More security guards have been deployed as the strike by miners enters its 14th week.

The government has knocked back another attempt by the union to register a dispute under the country's industrial laws. The FMWU is boycotting a board of inquiry and has demanded that the government provide conciliation services instead.

The regime has also refused permission for the striking miners to carry out street fundraising appeals in the mining town of Tavua. The miners depend heavily on public and trade union support for their subsistence.

With the harvest boycott and the mine strike, Fiji has entered a new period of uncertainty. The interim regime is increasingly desperate to control the two unions. Many observers fear that top union leaders may soon be arrested. Should this happen, a massive retaliation by gold miners and cane growers would become inevitable.

The Fiji Trades Union Congress has called on the government to immediately revoke the decree and the amendments to the Sugar Industry Act. It has informed its counterparts overseas and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions about the developments.

Issue