Vatukoula strike in ninth month

November 6, 1991

By Steve Painter

Workers at Fiji's Vatukoula gold mine are into their ninth month on strike and say they expect to spend Christmas on the picket line. The strike has restricted production so severely that the company recorded a $20 million loss for the 1990-91 financial year.

The strike is over the mineworkers' right to form a union. "As long as I'm white, there won't be a union here", said managing director Jeffrey Reid early in the strike, which began on February 27.

The strike has been a bitter affair, with militant picketing, attacks by hired thugs on mineworkers' residential districts, attempts to evict mineworkers' families from their homes, police attacks on picket lines, and at one point a refusal by the local supermarket to sell goods to strikers. The police are fed and supplied on a company account at the same supermarket.

The workers have held out thanks to donations of cash and produce from other Fijian unions and from farmers and the public throughout the islands. At one point the government attempted to ban collections in support of the mineworkers. Australian unions and the ACTU have also provided some assistance.

Vatukoula is owned by Emperor Mines Ltd, a company operating mainly in Australia, though since 1986 it has been registered in the Isle of Man. Before that, its registered office had been in Melbourne since the mid-1930s.

From 1983 to 1990, Western Mining Corporation, headed by New Right ideologist Hugh Morgan, owned a 20% stake in the mine and a 50% stake in the nearby Tavua open cut. WMC no longer holds a direct stake in the Fijian mines, but it retains a holding in Emperor and is still involved in managing the mine.

Living conditions

A union had existed previously, but it had been broken in a strike in 1977. Following the defeat of that strike, a combination of intimidation and bribery scattered or bought off the strongest unionists, and the union collapsed.

By 1989 conditions were so bad that these tactics were no longer effective. One of the main grievances was the state of company housing, some of which dates back to the opening of the mine in 1935.

The huts, mostly unlined galvanised iron sheds without ceilings, become enormously hot in the tropical climate. Many are so old the iron is rotting. Kitchens consist of sheds separate from the main huts, and are often shared between two or more families.

Most huts don't have electricity, and water comes from communal taps outside. The septic toilet system for much of the housing collapsed long ago, and now the toilets consist of pits, which surround much of the area in foul odours. Washing facilities are communal, with as many as 12 families sharing some of them. The ground around the housing ring rain.

The workers, who are mainly Fijians and a few Indians, accuse the company of racial discrimination, pointing out that European employees are provided with much higher quality housing.

Conditions in the old underground mine were little better. Safety standards were poor, and serious injuries and deaths were common.

Injured miners had difficulty claiming compensation, and those recovering from injury were often pressed to do so on the job so the company could claim they were able to attend work in the event of any legal action.

Mineworkers handling explosives were not issued with masks, and sometimes were overcome by fumes.

The workers were also unhappy about their pay. A company-run deduction system often left them with little or nothing in their pay packets. The deduction system involved the local supermarket, run under licence from the company, insurance premiums, bereavement fund and other items. Rates of pay appeared to vary without notice or reason, and pay slips failed to explain these changes.

Most workers were forced to work a six or seven day week, with no penalty rates for overtime. The company's insistence on Sunday work particularly upset many of the workers, who are mostly Methodist Christians.

Union rights

The present battle dates from August 1989, when the workers first applied for government registration of their union. The government registrar lost the registration four times, and then claimed the new union could not register because the non-existent old union was already registered.

After a nearly a year, the new Fiji Mineworkers Union was registered. The company, however, still refused to recognise the union, claiming it didn't have the required 50% support among the workers. The union claimed about 700 of the 1150 production workers. Some workers were afraid to identify themselves as union members for fear of victimisation.

As the union's campaign for recognition gathered support, the main leaders were reduced to four hours' work daily, and the company began sacking some workers and trying to bribe others.

To maintain its claim of less than 50% union membership, the company has had to restrict itself to sacking only 420 of the strikers, which it did after the strike had been going two months.

The company is holding out in the hope that it can repeat the experience of 1977, defeating the strike and breaking up the union. But among the mineworkers are veterans of the 1977 strike, and this time they're determined they won't be beaten.

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