A high-level Fijian Government delegation heads for Washington this weekend to try to save the jobs of 15-thousand Fijian workers directly threatened by Fijian trade union action in the United States. Pardon me, you might say. Do I need to read that again? You can almost sense the collective intake of breath around the nation. At first, Grubsheet couldn’t believe it either. But, unfortunately, Dear Reader, your eyes are not deceiving you.
It must seem to most people that the world has truly gone mad when it is the “hated dictatorship” portrayed by the anti-government lobby which is trying to save the jobs of ordinary people and the Fiji Trades Union Congress that is trying to destroy them. But make no mistake. That is precisely what is happening as the two sides slug it out to the bitter end in their ongoing dispute over labour reform. The FTUC has raised the stakes to a crazy level, Really crazy. Many people working in companies that export to the United States now stand to lose their jobs. How did it get to this? Allow me to explain.
The FTUC leadership of Felix Anthony, Daniel Urai and Rajeshwar Singh – the three amigos plus their second division faceless players – have long been at loggerheads with the Bainimarama Government, which wants comprehensive reform of the labour market. In essence, the Government wants to encourage more investment in Fiji – and more jobs – by freeing up the labour market in the same way that has happened in most of the advanced democracies over recent years. That means altering the current balance of power between employers on the one hand and unions on the other. It’s not about destroying jobs but trying to forge a climate to create more of them. The Government wants to reduce the ability of the unions and their leaders to dictate the parameters of the employment landscape. It wants to keep them at bay so that ordinary workers in individual workplaces can negotiate better employment conditions with their bosses. These are people who know each other best and realise, up close, what any business can tolerate financially for the spoils to be fairly shared. Not for some union “fat cat” with a big salary and a big car coming in and telling people how it’s going to be, which is the way it’s been in Fiji for far too long.
And make no mistake. The Government sees people like Anthony, Urai and Singh as “fat cats” who use their power to conspire against the genuine interests of their members and against the national interest. It is convinced – on the basis of the behaviour of these individuals – that they are more interested in feathering their own nests than in getting better wages and conditions for their members. For many ordinary workers, deciding who is right and who is wrong in this clash of the titans isn’t easy. There are so many claims and counterclaims that it’s often easier to ignore the static and just get on with trying to make a living.
Anyone who has ever tried to get a pay rise in Fiji knows that you can only ever get one if the company can afford it. And for the company to afford it, the business has to grow. It has to sell more or get more customers to make more profit in a market that is so competitive nowadays that it’s getting increasingly harder for bosses to compete.
The educated sophisticates among our readers must forgive Grubsheet for spelling all this out so simply. Yet this is pretty much all that ordinary workers need to know about the free market economy. You can only get investment and grow that economy if you can attract capital. Without capital, you can’t create jobs. Without jobs, you can’t feed your family or educate your children. And you stay in a third world rut. This is what the Bainimarama government says it is determined to pull the country out of – to create the right conditions to attract investment, grow the economy and expand the jobs market, to give every Fijian who wants to work a chance to improve their lives. This means reducing the power of the unions to demand wages and conditions that are unrealistic and simply can’t be met. It’s not rocket science. Any bright kid – and Fiji is full of them – can grasp the underlying principle.
Take the case of Air Pacific, which has had a remarkable turnaround since the Government busted the union stranglehold over its affairs. Many people thought our national airline was an endangered species, a flying basket case headed for a financial crash. What has happened? Air Pacific is now back in profit and – with sound management – can maintain its vital competitive edge in our collective national interest. Its national mission – and it borders on the sacred – is to provide the means to service the tourism industry on which the economy depends by bringing in visitors from overseas and keeping local jobs alive.
The reforms at Air Pacific have not cost a single job. In fact, there’s now a chance for workers to share in the profits of our national airline, to gain a reward for all the hard work and the resulting pride that goes into that work. There are also more jobs in the pipeline as the airline makes an investment in its new planes, saves fuel with better technology, and changes its name to Fiji Airways to better reflect its national origins. Fiji Airways is now a prized national symbol carrying the hopes of all Fijians for a better and more viable future. It is a work in progress, like the country itself, and it is inarguably stronger because of the labour reform that the government regards as essential in every other sector of the national economy. But what has been the local union response to these reforms? To stand and fight and to get the international labour movement – other unions also trying to maintain their privileges – to punish Fiji and punish it hard.
Last week, at the instigation of the FTUC, the Australian Council of Trade Unions ( ACTU) called for a tourist ban on Fiji. It was a direct assault on the jobs of ordinary workers in the tourism industry. Who does it hurt? Not Frank Bainimarama or his ministers. It hurts decent hardworking ordinary Fijians trying desperately to make ends meet in a harsh economic climate in which no-one seems to listen to them. The salt of the earth of this country have become pawns in a wider conflict, their union dues used to fight battles that they don’t understand and, worse, they can never win because the demands of their leaders cannot be economically justified. Without healthy profits, there is no money in the till to extract from their bosses without their bosses throwing up their hands and leaving Fiji altogether. It’s as simple as that.
Now, it’s no longer enough for the FTUC leaders to fight their battles in Fiji or Australia. They’re fighting them in the US by getting American unions to back them in an attempt to screw Fiji once and for all. Since 1976, certain Fijian companies have been entitled to export their products to the US market duty free under something called the Generalized System of Preferences Scheme ( GSP). Thirty nine Fijian companies currently benefit from the regime covering some 15-thousand workers. But if the unions have their way, all that will be coming to an end. Backed by the American labour movement – which includes some of the toughest operators in the business – the likes of Felix Anthony and Daniel Urai are pressing for our duty free access to be reviewed and ended. It is a lunge at the heart of the nation’s ability to keep pumping lavo (money) through the economy.
With all the other challenges around us, a Fijian Government delegation is obliged to travel to Washington next week to defend an attempt by the FTUC to stop Fiji from benefiting from the GSP scheme. If they succeed, 39 Fijian companies including some of the country’s most iconic brands – such as Fiji Water, PAFCO, FMF and Pure Fiji -will lose their preferential access to the US market and therefore their ability to compete with products from other countries.
A staggering 15-thousand Fijian jobs are at stake. There are many thousands more meals on the table at risk, kids being able to go to school, the difference between hope and despair for 15-thousand ordinary Fijian workers. And never mind them. What about the other people who depend on their pay packets? We know that for every Fijian woman in work, five extra people depend on her earnings. A national disaster is brewing, one that threatens the entire economy and Fiji’s ability to function as a proudly independent state.
We are being held hostage to trade unions and an unconscionable abuse of power by their leaders. It is unacceptable. Simply put, it is un-Fijian, an assault on everything we believe in about taking care of ourselves and each other. An assault on the yalo loloma ( the good heart) that is at the core of how we regard ourselves as a nation.
There is still time for Felix Anthony, Daniel Urai, Rajeshwar Singh and other union leaders to back off, to show that their sentiments are in tune with the rest of us and not with those who would wish our country incalculable harm. These are people who see themselves as having viable political futures, to be players in our future democracy. They need to examine their consciences and ask themselves if – with this action – they are demonstrating that they are fit to represent Fijians. More pertinently, we need to quietly ask ourselves whether they are fit to represent us.
Rajendra Chaudhry – the former Prime Minister’s son – famously described Felix Anthony as a “chihuahua” and a “howling banshee” a few weeks back as the once proud Labour Party disintegrated before our eyes on national television. We all had a good laugh but this is now well beyond a joke. So if you happen to see Felix Anthony on the street, tell him: “Bro, we cannot believe that you would do this to the ordinary men and women who you claim to represent. Yalo vinaka, give our nation a break. Stop trying to destroy our livelihoods or you have forfeited your right forever to speak for any of us. You have forfeited your right to ever be a mainstream political leader. You have forfeited your right to be regarded by the rest of us as a true Fijian”.