Tourism blow

Fiji’s tourism industry – a vital pillar of the local economy – could be set for a battering as Fiji-bound flights are targeted by Australian trade unionists acting in support of their Fijian counterparts. Members of the Transport Workers Union are threatening to disrupt flights to Nadi operated by Air Pacific and Jetstar – the two carriers servicing the route associated with the national airline, Qantas. Virgin flights will not be affected.

The threatened campaign – which New Zealand unions are also considering – is clearly designed to cause havoc with schedules and deter holidaymakers from choosing Fiji as their destination. The TWU says it’s in protest at the alleged beating of union officials in Fiji and a series of military decrees that have eroded the rights of workers. But here’s a link to a piece by Crosbie Walsh – the New Zealand academic blogger – that raises some disturbing questions about the premise of that campaign. Have Australian union bosses been deceived by their Fijian counterparts? It sure seems that way. Because as Walsh points out, the TWU’s public statements refer to a decree that is in draft form only and may never be implemented.

Felix Anthony (Photo:Coup 4.5)

The Australians appear to have been unwittingly dragged into direct action that has little to do with industrial relations and everything to do with domestic politics in Fiji. They’re acting at the behest of a gaggle of Fijian union leaders led by Felix Anthony – the national secretary of Fiji’s Trade Unions Council – who were once strong supporters of coup leader and current prime minister Frank Bainimarama but have since fallen out with him. In a startling development, they appear to have joined forces with other dissidents trying to achieve regime change in Fiji from exile in Australia and New Zealand. These include the renegade military officer, Ratu Tevita Mara – who Australia and NZ are refusing to extradite to Fiji to face charges of sedition – and Bainimarama’s former land force commander, Jone Baledrokadroka, now an academic at the Australian National University.

l/r Mara, Urai, Anthony, Chaudhry (photo:Coup 4.5)

This photograph taken at a rally in Sydney on Saturday indicates that the Fiji trade union leadership has now forged an alliance with exiled dissidents pressing for Bainimarama’s overthrow. On the left is the fugitive Ratu Mara, next to him are Fiji trade union leaders Daniel Urai and Felix Anthony and on the right another surprise guest in the form of lawyer Rajendra Chaudhry, son of Mahendra Chaudhry – the Indo-Fijian prime minister deposed in the Speight coup of 2000 and Bainimarama’s finance minister until he too fell out with the dictator. Rajendra Chaudhry fled Fiji when accusations of sexual assault were directed at him and despite those being evidently withdrawn, is yet to return.

This high powered line-up has some anti-regime elements – notably the website Coup 4.5 – speculating that these individuals intend to form a Fiji government in exile. But it’s a sign of how fractured the dissident movement is that Coup 4.5 poured scorn on the notion, attacking Saturday’s line-up in the following terms: “People want the regime gone but many are not convinced the unholy marriage between these regime remnants and others who’ve now joined the cause will result in the outcome we all want.” Does Tony Sheldon – the vocal leader of the Transport Worker’s Union in Australia – realise what a hall of mirrors he’s dragging his airport members into? Evidently not.

TWU's Tony Sheldon

For the TWU, all this has more to do with its ongoing struggle with Qantas management than with any concern about the plight of workers in Fiji. Unions representing pilots and maintenance workers are already threatening strike action to disrupt the airline’s operations and this is just another front in a deteriorating industrial relations climate. The entire basis for attacking Qantas is flawed. No planes with Qantas markings travel to Fiji, only those of its low-cost subsidiary Jetstar. The threatened campaign is aimed squarely at Air Pacific, Fiji’s national carrier, which is co-owned by Qantas and the Fiji Government.

Air Pacific: already struggling

The TWU says Qantas has to bear responsibility for the alleged erosion in the workplace conditions of Air Pacific’s Fijian workers. Yet Qantas – quite rightly – points out that at 46 per cent, it is the minority shareholder in Air Pacific and has no power to influence the industrial policies of the Fiji Government, which owns 51 per cent of the airline. In any event, Qantas is desperately trying to offload its shares in Air Pacific but has been unable to agree with Fiji on the terms of sale.

So all this smacks of economic sabotage on two fronts. The first is by Australian workers against their national airline, which has no way of influencing events in Fiji. And the second is by a group of Fiji trade union leaders who were once close to the regime and have now joined the chorus of the disaffected. By encouraging their Australian counterparts to target Air Pacific and deter Australian holidaymakers from visiting Fiji, they’re damaging the Fiji economy at the worst possible moment. It won’t be the regime that suffers so much as the already struggling national airline and the jobs of ordinary Fijians employed in the tourist industry.

Real victims: ordinary hotel workers

Felix Anthony and the other union leaders say they’re planning to return to Fiji this week. The TWU says its campaign will be triggered the moment they face any form of retribution from the government. This “gun at the head” approach may work in a democracy like Australia but is unlikely to impress Frank Bainimarama,  So the stage is being set for an ugly showdown, with hapless Fijian workers caught in the middle. With their jobs threatened as holidaymakers choose other destinations to dodge the airport delays, they won’t be happy with the union leadership either.

On another matter: Repeated attempts by Australia and NZ to shut down Fiji’s military contribution to the United Nations have come to nought. Cabinet announced today that 55 extra Fijian troops are on their way to Iraq to join the large contingent already there. All told, the Fiji contribution to the UN force in Iraq has now reached 278.

This article has subsequently appeared in the Fiji Sun and Pacific Scoop New Zealand.

Postscript: Unions in Australia and NZ have since backed off after lawyers acting for Air Pacific warned them their planned campaign was illegal in both countries. And here’s a link to another piece by Crosbie Walsh suggesting that the motivation of the Fiji union leaders may be more personal than political.