Fiji airport worker protest: Thousands march in solidarity with workers seeking wage increase

Fiji airport worker protest: Thousands march in solidarity with workers seeking wage increase

Fiji airport worker protest: Thousands march in solidarity with workers seeking wage increase

Updated 15 January 2018, 17:45 AEDT

Thousands of Fijians march through the town of Nadi in support of protesting workers at the country's main international airport who say they have not had a pay increase in more than a decade.

Thousands of Fijians marched through the town of Nadi at the weekend in support of protesting workers at the country's main international airport, who have been engaged in a bitter industrial dispute with their employer for the past month.

Around 200 employees of Air Terminal Services (ATS) — the company that provides baggage handling, catering and engineering checks at Fiji's Nadi International Airport — claim they have been locked-out since December 16 after attending a shareholders meeting during work hours.

The company said the meeting was an illegal strike action.

ATS workers have a 49 per cent stake in the company, with the remaining 51 per cent owned by the Fijian Government.

Protesting workers claim they have not received a wage increase in more than a decade, and that management has ignored allegations of sexual harassment. The company's board rejected the claims.

The workers' situation has become a rallying point for Fiji's trade union movement, human rights groups and opposition politicians.

Police told local media at least 2,500 people participated in last weekend's protest march, which they said was incident-free.

Fiji Trades Union Congress general secretary Felix Anthony said the turnout may have been higher.

"The media has estimated this as 8,400 people who marched," he said.

"It is within the government's powers, within the law, to resolve this issue peacefully and quickly.

"I believe the government must now pay attention to what the people have to say."

The Fijian Government has come under fire for failing to address the industrial dispute.

The country's Ministry of Employment had been trying to mediate between ATS and the locked-out workers — however those attempts failed, and the government is reportedly considering bringing in an independent mediator.

Time running out to resolve dispute

ATS is allowing workers to return if they sign a letter admitting their strike action was unlawful.

The company's CEO, Hare Mani, said dozens of locked-out workers have taken up that offer.

"As of today, 32 have returned. They were required to sign [the letter] ... and then they come in back to work," Mr Mani told the ABC.

Asked if the protesting workers would be replaced permanently, Mr Mani said further action may be necessary if the dispute drags on.

"I would imagine if this goes indefinitely, then at some point certain crucial calls will be made to ensure that there's some permanent normality to the way we operate here," he said.

"I mean you're talking about Fiji's major gateway, and we are giving it our best shot — level best — to ensure that this very important gateway into Fiji remains open at all times."

Controversially, the company has engaged temporary staff members to fill the gaps. Fiji's trade unions claim these workers are have not been trained for the roles they are performing.

The door of an Air New Zealand jet was damaged last week by ground handling staff at Nadi airport, however Mr Mani said staff training was not to blame for the incident.

"The people who handled [the Air New Zealand jet] were trained people," Mr Mani said.

"Air New Zealand has released a statement to the effect that it was a minor damage, the aircraft was fixed and is in service."