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Madraiwiwi launch of Just Wages in Fiji (for ECREA)

26/08/2016

Madraiwiwi launch of Just Wages in Fiji (for ECREA) in 2006

The launch of Just Wages in Fiji (for ECREA)  by the Vice President of Fiji (Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi)  was a great example of a grand collaboration  between a socially conscious NGO (Father Barr),  the Ministry of Labour (Minister Kenneth Zinck and PS Taito Waqa) the USP Faculty of Business and Economics (Professor Biman Prasad a former USP academic Professor Narsey), with the launch being given the stamp of approval by the highest office in the land.  The objective was to improve the living conditions of  the poorest workers not represented by unions, by giving them a fair and just wage.  Large numbers of government officials, NGOs and senior Fiji citizens attended the launch.

In 2005, the NGO Ecumenical Council for Research, Education and Advocacy (ECREA) led by Father Kevin Barr, commissioned me to do a study on the failure of the Wages Councils of Ministry of Labour to protect the real incomes of the thousands of Fiji workers (more than thirty thousand) not covered by unions who were sliding more and more into abject poverty.

With the full co-operation of the Ministry of Labour (then Minister Kenneth Zinck and PS Taito Waqa) I delved through more than a hundred confidential Ministry files documenting hundreds of meetings of the 10 separate Wages Councils, covering different industries, their Wages Regulation Orders, and the actual wages rates that eventuated. The result was Just Living Wages for Fiji which may be read here.  The research showed that after brief period of improvement in early seventies, real wages (nominal wages adjusted for inflation), declined steadily for more than 25 years. The evidence showed that even when the economy was doing well (indicated by GDP and GDP per capita) and average salaries were doing well, the wages covered by Wages Councils were not.

      The causes were many: there were 10 different Wages Councils, different chairpersons, different members of the boards, some of whom tried to be fair, but most did not. There would be long delays in decisions, sometimes as much as three years during which inflation would eat away at workers’ wages; with increases always a small proportion of the increase in CPI, and there was no consistent method of setting wages.

      The employers were well organized and used to simply assert an inability to pay increased wages. The workers’ representatives were usually unionists who were not employed by the workers concerned and so had no incentive (other than moral) to fight hard for the workers.  The Ministry of Labour itself, despite having mountains of data scattered throughout Fiji, did not provide the right kinds of information nor any analysis.

      In my recommendations, there would be one Wages Council Chairman for all the wages councils (which would have different members depending on the industries covered), there must be gazetted annual wage rates by the end of  year and wages must be adjusted annually, without delay.  I recommended that there by one full-time workers advocate employed in the Ministry of Labour, with both the Chairman and this Labour Advocate bound by the oath of secrecy that senior civil servants normally take. Most importantly, any employer’s claim of “inability to pay” must be proven with audited accounts shown to the Chairman of the Wages Council.

      My Report  (which benefited from comments by ECREA’s readers Suliana Siwatibau and Dr Margaret Chung), was fully accepted by the Minister for Labour then (Kenneth Zinck), but after the 2006 coup, was initially implemented by the Bainimarama Government.

The Launch Video Clip:

The speech by the Vice President of Fiji (Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi) also gives a great perspective on the very progressive role of this office just prior to the Bainimarama coup. His removal from this high office was a tragedy, but this video clip sets the very high bar that current and future incumbents of the President’s Office need to set their sights on.

Post-script

Father Kevin Barr, who was an early supporter of the Bainimarama Government (to  my disappointment) was appointed the sole Chairman of the Wages Councils and got to work. But within a year, the employers exerted their usual pressure on the Bainimarama Government, which kept delaying the Wages Regulation Orders, as had happened for the previous thirty years under all previous governments.

      In total frustration, Father Kevin Barr accused Bainimarama of fostering “crony capitalism” but had his residence permit threatened (among other things).  Barr eventually apologised to Bainimarama, but by this time he had been removed as Chairman of the Wages Council.  The National Minimum Wage fiasco followed soon after which may be read here:
https://narseyonfiji.wordpress.com/2013/10/03/the-old-minimum-wages-are-dead-long-live-the-new-minimum-wage-3-october-2013/

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