Assault on workers’ rights and unions

BY PROFESSOR BIMAN PRASAD,

LEADER OF NATUIONAL FEDERATION PARTY

Birdseye view of “Animal Farm” 

An unskilled worker on the current $2.68 minimum wage would have to work for 6  months, or 26 weeks at a 45-hour week, or 1,170  hours to earn a little over $3,000, inclusive of his or her Fiji National Provident Fund contribution of 8%, to match what the Prime Minister receives on average $3,000 daily allowance for one day or 24 hours when on overseas travel.

Civil servants including teachers are put on 3 or 5 year contracts with no guarantee they would be renewed while taxi permits awarded through a so-called lottery are given for ten years with the Attorney General and Minister for Economy saying a 10 year tenure is justified because it would help the recipients of such permits to borrow funds from commercial banks.

Civil servants including our teachers, police officers and even those officers, men and women of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces are compelled to retire at the age of 55 years while 9 top positions, many of those appointed through the supposedly independent Constitutional Offices Commission have a retirement age of 65 years.

Almost every major industry is now classified as an Essential Service in contravention of International Labour Organisation’s definition of what is supposed to be “Essential”.

The Supervisor of Election is now required to supervise strike ballots by workers and if he or she doesn’t, the ballot is not recognised as was the case with the largest Public Sector Union last year.

A lockout by a company is declared as an illegal strike by the Industrial Relations Minister who orders the employees back to work but does not order the company to accept them back without any preconditions. As a result the workers are locked out, spending Christmas and New Year not at home but picketed outside their job site.

And when the Employment Tribunal ruled that the company allow the workers to return without any conditions or loss of pay, the Minister doesn’t resign for his failings. Neither do the company CEO or its Chairman who happened to be the  younger brother of the Attorney General. The company in question was Air Terminal Services ( ATS) that is 51% owned by Government and 49% by Workers, who had exercised their right as shareholders of the company.  

Unions representing workers in our town and city councils are unable to negotiate the Log of Claims with the  unelected Administrators of the municipalities who admit they do not have the mandate to do so and must take guidance from the Minister for Local Government  on every decision to be made or action to be taken. We have been informed pay increases for workers agreed  between Unions and two municipal councils are awaiting approval from the Local Government Minister.

Contrary to widespread evidence, the Local Government Minister  denied in Parliament that he was interfering in the decision making process of municipalities. This is at the height of dictatorship.

Trade Unionists and Union staff are prevented under the Political Parties (Registration, Conduct, Funding &Disclosures) Act from either supporting or joining a political party. They have to resign their positions if they want to be active in politics.

Yet the Attorney General who is the Chief Legal Officer of the State, is the General Secretary and Registered Officer of Fiji First Party, Minister Responsible for Elections and Minister for parliament. This is okay but not so for trade unionists. It is also okay for a member of the  supposedly independent Constitutional Offices Commission to be actively fundraising, campaigning and even interviewing applicants for Fiji First candidacy in the general elections!

Assault on rights of workers and unions

The assault on unions, unionists and workers’ rights began immediately after the military coup of 5th December 2006, perpetrated and led by the current Prime Minister of Fiji. A 5% pay cut for civil servants was arbitrarily imposed.

On 10th April 2009,  the 1997 Constitution was abrogated to provide longevity  to the military regime, which then ruled through absolute fear and suppression of freedom of one and all – especially workers’ rights. It was the rule of the thumb that prevailed – through Decrees and Promulgations – eventually leading to the Essential National Industries (Employment) Decree of 2011. This Decree was prepared with legal expertise from an American law firm that chanelled its bill for payment as well as the draft of the Decree through Fiji’s international airline to a local law firm.

Out went the last vestiges of rights of workers who were subservient to the employer in services designated as essential. This was first reported to the International Labour Organisation by the Fijian Teachers Association through its umbrella organisation FICTU (Fiji Islands Council of Trade Unions).

Since FICTU wasn’t represented on ILO, the issue was taken up by FTUC ( Fiji Trade Unions Congress), resulting in the ILO threatening a Commission of Inquiry into Fiji if the Decree persisted.

In July 2015, the ENI Decree was repealed but its provisions  ;largely incorporated in the Employment Relations Act. In February 2016, it was further refined  in to satisfy the ILO.

But grievances do remain.

The Civil Service

The favourite line of this Government is– all is rosy, nothing is wrong, the reforms are working, civil servants are happy and the Open Merit Recruitment System is working well.

Nothing can be further from the truth. The reality is distinctly different within our civil service and teaching fraternity. The same even goes for our personnel in the Fiji Police Force who feel let down but due to professional ethics, do not speak out.

In Parliament this year, the Minister Responsible for Civil Service, who is the AG, asked me to show evidence that Open Merit Recruitment System was being abused in police recruitment.  I urged him to review the last two years of recruitment list and the minimum requirements of recruits into the Force, which should be readily available in the Fiji Police Academy.

In September last year NFP Whip Prem Singh revealed in Parliament how a Principal at a prominent School in Lautoka was removed from her position and replaced by an officer from the Curriculum Development Unit  – following direct involvement and interference by a senior Cabinet Minister.

At that time the Honourable Attorney General stated in reply that this was an isolated case and the affected principal could appeal against the decision. The senior Cabinet Minister even directed the school management to accept the change.

The substantive principal then had no choice but to report to the Divisional Education Officer during her working hours.

The affected principal knocked the doors of the Ministry including the former and current permanent secretary of education to no avail. She was offered a downgraded position that she rightly refused.

But the so-called implementation of Open Merit Recruitment System failed in this regard – the principal posted to the school following the directive of the senior Minister was forced out of the school following an alleged sexual incident at the school this year. The former principal was then re-posted to the school on a temporary contract.

So much for the Open Merit Recruitment System.

Severely affected

The most affected by the arbitrary reforms have been teachers.

The teaching fraternity has been exploited and held to ransom by the current Government, which has forced them to enter into discriminatory contracts under the pretext of offering them salary increases.

Principals, Vice Principals, Heads of Department (HOD), Head Teachers, Assistant Head Teachers and other post holders have been demoted to a lower rank and then offered acting appointments to the substantive positions they previously held.

Teachers who held substantive positions have been first appointed to a rank lower than the position they were holding, and then given a second contract offering them an acting contract to the position they held substantially and an acting salary of 95% of the substantive salary.

We have cited contracts of several teachers to confirm the exploitation and discriminatory nature of the contract.

In one case a principal was first offered the contract of a vice principal. The person has been holding the position of Principal prior to this ill-conceived reform. On the same day, the person was given another contract of Acting Principal of 95% of the increased salary.

In another case a teacher holding the position of HOD (Head of Department) was first offered the contract of Assistant Teacher. On the same day, the person was offered an Acting HOD Contract at a salary of   95% of the new salary.

In November 2017, principals and head teachers were told to re-apply for positions and their substantive positions would come into effect from the beginning of 2nd term. The 2nd term has come and will soon be gone by next week.

Mockery

We have established that a lot of substantive post holders, who were given acting appointments, were not been even shortlisted for interviews. This is despite earning their posts through years of experience and climbing the ladder meritoriously. Where is the Open Merit Recruitment System?

Furthermore, teachers who have been in the service for over 25 years have been given a meagre pay rise of 6.4 percent- the same if not lower than teachers with far less experience.

Why? Because they do not hold a Diploma. The teachers are furious because their experience counts for nothing.

Worse of all, all contracts render meaningless the teachers’ employment security and make them totally subservient to Government.

Some of its regressive provisions of this Government’s Civil Service Reforms are: –

  • Renewal of the contract is at the absolute discretion of Government
  • The Civil Servant irrevocably agrees that non-renewal of the Contract will not give rise to any course of action whatsoever against the Government
  • The duration of the Contract expires immediately upon a civil servant reaching the retirement age of 55
  • Renewal of the Contract is subject to Government requiring the services of the civil servant and that too if he or she agrees to enter into another contract on mutually agreed terms
  • The decision of Government to transfer a civil servant on the existing terms of the Contract to anywhere in Fiji is final
  • Government has the right to change or vary the Contract anytime

This discriminatory and exploitative contractual employment that is being forced upon our teachers will not result in a harmonious, unified and productive civil service. 

Such draconian contracts are subjugating our teachers and have no place in a genuine democracy.

What we will do

We will correct this discriminatory practice. We will: –

  • Offer permanent tenure of employment to all civil servants, teachers and members of our two security forces.
  • Increase the retirement age in the civil service to 60 years.
  • Implement a living wage of $5 an hour for unskilled workers as well those in industries like garment.
  • Democratise institutions like local government so that unions in local government deal with elected Councils and Management when negotiating their log of claims.
  • Amongst the Decrees to be reviewed will be the Political Parties (Registration, Conduct, Funding and Disclosures) Decree or Act to ensure trade unionists and union staff are free to express their support for or join political parties.
  • Comprehensively review the Employment Relations Act to specially look at reducing the list of Essential Industries in accordance with ILO standards.

Watch our manifesto for more details.