Today, the NFP announces that one of the most experienced trade unionists in Fiji, Mr Attar Singh, a former NFP Leader, has resigned from his union positions to become a provisional candidate of the party. He will be part of the list of 51 names whose nominations will be submitted to the Supervisor of Elections.
The NFP deems it necessary to make this special announcement given deteriorating state of our industrial relations climate and erosion of rights of workers.
During his 35-year career Mr Singh has represented workers in the aviation, telecommunications mining industry, local government, energy sector, dock workers, as well as championing the rights of cane growers. He also served on various boards tasked with upholding workers’ rights as well as their occupational health and safety. In this long career Mr Singh has been repeatedly arrested and harassed by the authorities. He and his wife Priscilla, a NFP vice president, have been repeatedly been subjected to violence and threats. But Mr Singh is still here and ready to represent workers. And never have Fiji’s workers needed him more.
There is no other unionist contesting this election with his experience. And he is needed. The workers of Fiji and the trade union movement can rely upon him to protect and advance their rights and freedoms in parliament, more so in a government. And we can assure you that Mr Singh will do exactly that in an NFP government after the elections.
The Constitution, through the Political Parties (Registration, Conduct, Funding & Disclosures) Act, deliberately sidelines trade unionists by requiring them to resign their positions if they wish to contest elections. Mr Singh has done that. He has decided to sacrifice his career and accept the daunting task of correcting the imbalances, eliminating discriminatory practices and restoring the rights of workers who have been under the onslaught of both the military regime and the Fiji First government’s draconian policies and laws for the last 12 years.
Never have things been worse for the trade union movement than now. This is the government that initiated the draconian ENI Decree, destroying the rights of workers in so-called essential industries. They could not even negotiate their own wages. The ENI Decree only ended when the government was threatened with a board of inquiry from the International Labour Organisation.
But the government continues to do what it wants in matters involving unions:
- disallowing strikes
- not recognising strike ballots
- waiting for “ministerial approval” to settle minor issues in local government officers’ disputes
- setting a restrictive timeline to reporting of disputes and;
- implementing civil service reforms arbitrarily.
This has resulted in disparities in salaries and wages in the civil service, employees suspended and then sacked without any fair hearing, civil servants being put on contracts, promotions not based on merit despite the so-called Open Merit System, and an enforced retirement age of 55 years.
Who can forget the ATS saga of December 2017 till January 20, 2018 when workers were locked out of their workplace for 34 days and they and their families spent Christmas and New Year in tents, fighting to keep their jobs in a company they partly own?
This was a disgraceful episode in our labour relations history. The government declared a disputed workers’ meeting to be an unlawful strike but refused to declare the subsequent employer lockout illegal.
It was a reminder of the petulance of this government, with the ATS board demanding that workers sign an apology letter and admit wrongdoing before they were allowed to return to work.
After 34 days the ATS employees were finally vindicated by the orders of the Employment Tribunal, restoring them to their work with their full pay. ATS achieved nothing, except to make the workplace more toxic for its employees than it already was.
In a genuine democracy, a Minister would have quit after his colossal failure to practice harmonious industrial relations. The same would have applied to the ATS Board Chairman and the company’s Acting CEO.
As already announced on 4th January 2018 as a matter of public policy, we will divest 51% Government shares in ATS to the ATS Employee Trust when we come into Government.
This year, police have three times refused a permit to workers to march and air their grievances. The first two refusals have been based on weak excuses. The third time, the Police did not even bother to offer a reason. This from a government that claims to have created a true democracy, and common and equal citizenry!
We recognise unions as a force for good in protecting some of Fiji’s poorest people. We want to return Fiji to genuine tripartism and consultation for the good of the economy. We want to eliminate discriminatory laws, raise the minimum wage rate to $5 an hour, to properly apply the labour laws and to end the constant threats and harassment of trade unionists. We will abolish contractual employment and make all jobs permanent in the civil service. We will increase the retirement age to 60 years.
And the workers of Fiji have no better platform than that of the NFP and a staunch advocate of their rights in Mr Attar Singh to restore their equality, dignity and respect.
Professor Biman Prasad