Through Union Allies, Fiji’s Labor Troubles Ripple Across the Pacific

Michelle Chen

The tranquil archipelago of Fiji is erupting in turmoil as its labor conflicts ripple across the Pacific.

Fijian labor activists are appealing for international support in their fight against the country’s non-democratic régime. The national trade union coalition charges that unionists have been targeted with physical attacks and a major crackdown on organizing. Pushing for draconian legislation that would curtail civil liberties, the government has effectively barred meetings of more than five people, undermined the public sector and stifled press freedom.

Sister unions in Australia and New Zealand are cooperating with Fijian activists, according to New Zealand’s ONE News:

The national secretary of Fiji’s Trade Council, Felix Anthony, claimed in New Zealand today that he was beaten by Fijian soldiers. He said workers and union members are constantly threatened with physical abuse, and some have ended up in wheelchairs.

The questions came and while we were in the process of answering we were abused and assaulted by the military,” Anthony told ONE News. He said the Fijian government is imposing new laws which suppress workers’ rights.

[It] basically takes away the rights of public servants to challenge any decision of government in relation to the restructure of the civil service.”

At the New Zealand meeting, Australian and New Zealand union representatives discussed possible solidarity actions. The Australian Transport Workers Union has announced that it was considering a work stoppage in support of Fiji’s unionists, which might halt Qantas flights for Australians seeking a tropical getaway.

Peter Conway of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions said the union was talking to officials, international labor groups, and even employer groups in the meat, dairy and travel industry” to discuss measures to pressure the Fijian government. Tony Sheldon of the Australian TWU stated, We’re calling on the Australian community to stand by the Fijian community — not just the sun and surf — but give them an opportunity to enjoy the freedom and rights that we take for granted.”

Fiji’s labor issues are only starting to get their day in the sun in the West, but the country has long simmered with political unrest. According to the ITUC’s annual report on labor rights violations worldwide, last summer, the government of Commodore Frank Bainimarama blocked the head of the national teachers union from traveling to a planned meeting in southern Fiji. The move shows that the security forces monitor the movements of trade unionists,” says the ITUC. In October, Mahendra Chaudhry, deposed prime minister and General Secretary of the National Farmers Union, was detained for reportedly failing to request authorisation to organise a public meeting, a violation of the public emergency regulations.”

Fiji’s constitution technically protects the right to organize, but the anti-labor legal régime allows the government to unilaterally declare a strike unlawful, force arbitration of labor disputes, and impose financial or criminal penalties on people participating in strikes without official approval. Some strikes are preempted by the law altogether — namely those led by workers who wish to form a union.

And just to make sure retired workers don’t get too feisty, according to a 2010 report by Amnesty International, the government passed a law that could cut off pensions and other benefits if a person inter alia prejudices the orderly functioning or operation of the government, promotes or incites feelings of ill-will and hostility amongst the different classes of population in Fiji, brings hatred or contempt or disaffection against the administration of justice’.” In other words, class struggle now constitutes a national security threat.

Amnesty noted that in January 2010, unionist Pramod Rae’s was harassed by military officers who warned him against organising a strike by members of his union,” workers of the Mumbai-based multinational Bank of Baroda. That same day, officials suspended 20 workers of the Suva City Council and seized their computers on suspicion that they were anti-government bloggers.”

Along with labor activists, others caught up in the government’s frontal assault on dissent include journalists and pro-democracy protesters.

Earlier this year, the British Trade Union Confederation wrote in a letter to the High Commissioner of Fiji, Pio Bosco Tikoisuva, The intimidation of workers and trade union leaders by military personnel is a serious and ongoing concern that requires your government’s immediate redress.”

If the flurry of international labor solidarity seems unusual for this little Oceana enclave, it may just be a long overdue response to the massive global exploitation of Fiji, stretching from the first colonial forays in the 17th century all the way through its young independence period since 1970. Fiji’s tattered economy harbors export processing zones that allow foreign firms to take advantage of rock-bottom wages and anemic labor standards. The export sector is rife with union busting, according to ITUC, and migrant workers imported to the island suffer doubly as they are denied even the basic rights of Fijian citizens.

Fijians are also on the other side of the Pacific migration wave, joining a labor exodus to richer countries that drives a vast remittance economy. Sarah Stillman’s recent New Yorker expose on the exploitative, sometimes brutal treatment of Fijian women service workers at U.S. military bases reveals how gender, race and conflict intertwine in the labor cycle gripping the Global South.

Fiji is largely known to the West as a distant tourist spot, but it’s at the heart of many struggles over globalization, democracy and economic rights. If a few Australian vacationers get stranded at the airport this summer thanks to coordinated labor action, it will be a small step forward for unionists who dare to cross borders.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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