Fiji: Military regime facing growing revolt from workers

Fijian military
Fijian military

Fiji's military regime is facing a growing revolt by the country's unions, with thousands more workers voting to support a strike in defiance of warnings they will be sacked.

Submitted by Ed on March 22, 2007

The Public Employees Union (PEU), representing almost 5,000 blue collar public servants, has voted to back a strike planned by the country's largest union, the Public Service Association (PSA). The PSA voted overwhelmingly on Friday to strike after the military government slashed civil servants' wages under a plan to save the nation's economy from collapse.

Nurses & teachers ballot
The Fiji Nursing Association and Fiji Teachers Union are also holding ballots about whether to join the planned walkout. PEU General Secretary Pita Delana today said his members would not be intimidated by the military regime's threats to crack down on workers who walk off the job. He told how he was rounded up by the military last Thursday and taken to a camp, where Fiji's Acting Military Commander Esala Teleni warned him not to proceed with industrial action.

"They took me down to the camp and they told me 'don't make any strike, don't go against the decision the government has made'," Delana said today. "He said 'if you want to go on strike, tell them to go on strike, but they will never come back to work. They will go for good. And if you go on strike, then we will intervene. We have to stop it'."

Wages slashed
Civil servants learned of the regime's plan to slash their wages by five per cent when an emergency budget was handed down earlier this month. Interim finance minister Mahendra Chaudhry at the time said Fiji's economy was doomed if it continued on its current path. Fiji's economy has been hurt by international sanctions imposed after last year's December 5 military coup, and an associated downturn in tourist arrivals.

But the country's military rulers insisted it was the excesses of the ousted government of Laisenia Qarase - not the takeover - that brought the economy to the brink of ruin. Delana said May was shaping as the likely month for the public sector strike. Unions must first lodge documents giving 28 days' notice of the walkout. "Some of our members are angry ... if the army intervenes, then there will be a confrontation," he said.

"The way we look at it, we have a dictatorship leadership in our country now. They want to implement anything they like." Delana said workers wanted to avoid a confrontation with the military, but would not back down on demands to have their wages reinstated. The Confederation of Public Sector Unions - which groups the PSA and the teachers and nurses unions - said its 12,000 members were ready to join the strike. Treasurer Karam Chand Bidesi said he was not concerned by the military's threats, and did not think a showdown with troops was likely.

"We are not worried at all," he said. Ninety-two per cent of members who had participated in secret ballots so far had voted to strike, he said. Fiji's coup leader, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, has warned a wide-ranging strike would destabilise the country. The military was ready to take action to prevent it, he said. "Civil servants should be grateful they are continuing with their paid employment and are already well paid," he told the Fiji Times today.

Other emergency provisions announced earlier this month include budget cuts for education, health, the armed forces and police. The military regime also slashed the number of government departments from 23 to 16, and moved to cut the compulsory retirement age from 60 to 55.