Amnesty backs unions in Fiji battle | Pacific Beat

Amnesty backs unions in Fiji battle

Amnesty backs unions in Fiji battle

Updated 15 February 2012, 12:12 AEDT

Amnesty International has added its weight to calls for Fiji's interim government to repeal a new decree which would restrict workers rights to bargain and strike.

It has also raised concerns about the arrests and alleged harassment of trade unionists.

Amnesty's call comes as a delegation from the International Labour Organisation lands in Fiji to try to mediate the situation.

Presenter: Geraldine Coutts

Speaker: Shane Enright, Amnesty International's International Labour Expert

ENRIGHT: To sum it up the decree amounts to a breathtaking abuse of fundamental rights. But for the purposes of your listeners who are not familiar with the content, the decree takes away nearly all collective bargaining rights for workers in the sectors affected, which are the essential industries in Fiji, including aviation and sugar, virtually abolishes the right to strike. It bans all overtime payments for workers in designated companies, and it would void all collective, existing collective agreements for workers in those enterprises 60 days from the decree being published. The decree effectively also authorises employers in government designated enterprises to dictate working conditions while denying their workers the right to a voice through independent trade unions. We need to remember here that we're talking about fundamental human rights which are at stake.

COUTTS: Alright you said that in some industries, are they essential industries because that's what the interim government is arguing, given the fragile state of the economy and tourism they don't want things like such as the airlines going on strike disrupting that. Is that an argument?

ENRIGHT: No I don't believe for a moment it's an argument. The government of Fiji claims that the measures are needed to ensure the development viability and sustainability of industries that are essential to the economy. But to be honest the best way to achieve these goals is by respecting the fundamental human rights and the dignity of those whose labour underpins these enterprises. And let's be clear, this attack on the supposed essential national industries is just the latest in a series of attack on the fundamental human rights of working people in Fiji. Back in May the government essentially took away from all public sector employees their rights to basic employment protection's and conditions, which would otherwise apply in Fijian law. And it is one of these concerted legal assaults, assaults taking place by decree we're also seeing, and Amnesty's also very deeply concerned by increasing reports of harassment, intimidation of trade unionists using regulations that are fundamentally inimical to fundamental human rights.

COUTTS: Well enterprise bargaining isn't new, so is it enterprise bargaining per se you're against or just this specific decree in Fiji?

ENRIGHT: The International Labour Organisation's core convention number 87 and 98 to which Fiji has signed up is very clear, workers have the right to form and join trade unions, they have the right to organise, they have the right to bargain collectively and they have the right to strike. These fundamental human rights that are being undermined by these regulations, and indeed more fundamentally undermined by a climate on intimidation and fear that's being pursued by the authorities in Fiji.

COUTTS: What do you know about that, the alleged intimidation, the fear tactics?

ENRIGHT: We're receiving an increasing number of reports, not only from trade unionists, but also from critics and activists in Fiji of instances of intimidation. Indeed back in February of this year we issued a public statement and an urgent action to our supporters complaining about severe beatings amounting to torture of government critics, and reporting on the beatings of several trade unionists and politicians at that time, this is back in February. Since then we've received further reports of efforts to undermine and to silence critics of the government, including trade unionists. So it looks as if the climate is becoming more oppressive. Let's be clear here and the ILO is clear, this is why it's undertaking a mission to Fiji, trade unionists should not need permits or permissions to meet their members. Our understanding is that the latest two arrests, including the President of the Fiji Trade Union Congress and a staff member of the hotels and tourism union, were arrested on the 3rd of August, and subsequently charged on the 4th of August under the Public Emergency Regulations, for effectively holding a bargaining discussion with members in their own union. That's a clear breach of Fiji's international obligations. And independent trade unions are sorely needed in Fiji, they're needed now perhaps more than ever before. Let's be clear, Fiji is failing in its duty to deliver decent work to its people. Forty per cent of Fijians are reported to live below the poverty line at one dollar 25 a day, and of those who are living below the poverty line, more than half are in full-time employment, and that says something about wages and that says something about conditions in Fiji.

COUTTS: Your delegation, the ILO delegation in Fiji, who are they set to meet, what are they intending to do?

ENRIGHT: Well I'm not familiar with the details of the International Labour Organisation's delegation, which was only announced yesterday. My understanding is it it's going to be a high-level delegation and as is normal with the ILO I imagine they would be keen to meet with trade unionists, meet with employers, of course hoping to meet with the government in order to try to seek a way forward for Fiji which fully respects the fundamental human rights that are at stake here. This is not an issue about how you structure collective bargaining in a country, this is actually about taking away the most basic rights that workers have, it's a breathtaking abuse of fundamental human rights that's underway. Employers effectively will be able to impose collective bargaining terms if they refuse to agree collective agreements with their employees under Article 6 of the new measures, all union registrations in designated industries are effectively cancelled forthwith. The leaders of registered unions, including the office bearers, the officers, the representatives and executives must be employed by the employer. In the individual enterprise that would effectively prevent industry wide unions. Under Article 10 a union must first apply to the Prime Minister to seek to be elected or to be re-elected as a representative. And that amounts almost to prior authorisation by the government. And the list goes on, to the extent to which fundamental rights, including the rights contained in the ILO convention that Fiji has signed up to, are undermined or are negated by these measures is really quite, quite extraordinary.

COUTTS: And what would Amnesty be calling on Fiji, the interim government to do?

ENRIGHT: Well what we're calling on the interim government to do is five things; first to immediately stop the arbitrary detention, torture and other ill treatment of critics and activists, including of trade unionists, secondly to immediately suspend the Public Emergency Regulations that have been used in this instance to charge the two trade unionists charged within the past week, to end censorship of the media, to ensure that freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are respected, and finally in regards specifically to the new decree, to repeal this and other anti-union legislation and to fully respect the fundamental human rights contained in the ILO conventions that Fiji has signed up to, which guarantee the right to form and join trade unions, the right to collectively bargain and the right to strike.

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