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Water Authority of Fiji Workers and the lessons of history (FT 11 May 2019)


WAF workers and the lessons of history (FT 11 May 2019)

These last few weeks the Fiji public have seen the workers and management of the Water Authority of Fiji (WAF) metaphorically come to blows over their terms of employment.  This is not the first time such industrial action and reactions have occurred in Fiji and it will not be the last time.

But there are shocking aspects to this particular crisis that the Fiji public should be deeply concerned about, given that water is a basic necessity of life and that WAF is owned by taxpayers even if it is a “corporatized” entity.

Firstly, why were police personnel brought in on “high alert” at a number of work locations for what is essentially an industrial dispute between an employer and employees?

Why did the police not just “maintain the peace” but took into custody and kept overnight several unionists, including FTUC National Secretary (Felix Anthony), Fiji Nursing Association General Secretary (Salaieta Matiavi), FTUC Industrial Officer (Shiu Lingam) and 28 WAF workers?

Third, why has there been such ridiculous disagreement on the terminology to describe the workers whose conditions of work were clearly being changed by WAF: “terminations” or merely “end of contract”?  “Casual” jobs or “permanent” jobs? Restructuring or downsizing?

Fourth, why were there no peaceful and orderly dispute  resolution processes in place as should have been for state enterprises? Why did the dispute proceed to such an extreme stage as to involve protests, strikes, police presence and arrests?

Fifth, why was the WAF CEO accusing the Fiji Times of spreading “fake news” when clearly there was a major crisis of employment for hundreds if not thousands of WAF workers, which the newspaper was duty-bound to report on?

Sixth (and not to be commented on further), why was the Chairman of MIDA (Ashwin Raj) accusing the Fiji Times of publishing stories that could cause “national panic” and “sabotaging he economy”, when all they did was report what the workers and their union reps, and what the CEO of WAF (Bhavesh Patel) had stated to the media?

Seventh (and not to be commented on further), why was the Head of the Fiji Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission (Ashwin Raj) not concerned at all about the human rights of the workers under threat?

Historians have a lovely cliché: “those who cannot remember the mistakes of the past, are condemned to repeat it”.

Fiji has many such industrial dispute lessons to learn from, of relevance not just to this WAF dispute, but to many more that are bound to come with other state-owned enterprises facing similar economic pressures.

Lesson 1:  There was once a PWD

Once upon a time, there was little dispute that the provision of this “public good” (water and sewerage) or a basic human necessity, ought to be by government, just as education and health were provided through taxpayers’ funds.

Once it was the responsibility of a mere division of the Public Works Department (PWD), which was part of a Government Ministry, with all the terms of employment (including termination) being the clear responsibility of the Public Service Commission, with the due processes all clearly spelt out, in consultation with the Fiji Public Service Association.

But then during the SVT era after the 1987 military coup by Rabuka, processes were begun to corporatize or even privatize the provision of water and sewerage, probably according to the advice of over-paid, anonymous and unaccountable IMF or World Bank staffers, who come and go.

This corporatization was finally implemented by the illegal Bainimarama Government after the 2006 coup, and today you have a corporate entity, WAF, whose board is appointed by the Government.

Strangely, is anyone questioning that the Board Chairman (Bhavesh Patel) is also  being reported as being the CEO of WAF (very much like the Board Chairman of FSC one day suddenly became the CEO as well).

But look at the WAF website and see all the many “managers” listed there, no doubt with salaries and perks never to be seen in the days of the old PWD.

Unlike all the publicly available financial details of the operations of the PWD in the olden days, the WAF does not put a single Annual Report or Annual Accounts on its fancy website.

Today, the PSC Board is completely quiet on these state enterprises, with nothing to say to the public, despite there having been many radical changes to the terms of condition so civil service employment, such as reducing the compulsory retirement age to 55, or the very selective massive increases in salary for select permanent secretaries.

Lesson 2:  Political consequences

How many people today remember the Alliance Government’s unilateral “Wage Freeze” of 1984 which led to national protests from all the trade unions of Fiji, both public sector and private sector? You can read the Fiji Times of 1 February 1985 “Alternatives to the 1984 Wage Freeze” by USP economist Wadan Narsey (my first ever newspaper article- thirty four years ago.)

Some might remember the Biennial Conference and Labor Summit of 3 May 1985 at which USP academics Wadan Narsey and Simione Durutalo delivered the two keynote addresses which argued that Government’s unilateral wages policy change that broke the existing tripartite agreement between employees, employers and government, called not for more economic debate but an alternative political party which would protect workers’ rights.

That industrial dispute led to the birth of the Fiji Labor Party, which against all odds and in co-operation with the National Federation Party (then the representatives of the cane farmers of Fiji) won the 1987 elections, but were prevented from governing by the Rabuka military coup (Rabuka is now the head of the major Opposition Party).

But can today’s WAF workers expect a political solution to their woes? Today, both the FLP and NFP are shadows of their old parties, with their supporters by and large now supporting Fiji First Party and the Bainimarama Government.

I suspect that even a large proportion of the WAF workers who are on strike, terminated or contracts ended, may have voted for FFP, because of all the benefits they have received in education for their children and other freebees.

Of course, they do not see that a large part of these benefits from FFP have been paid for by themselves and the future generations, through a massive increase in public debt.

Or that it is precisely that public debt which is forcing the Bainimarama Government to demand that statutory corporations like WAF become more profitable by reducing their workforce and possibly even reducing wages and salaries and perks.

The 64,000 dollar question is: are the Opposition parties SODELPA, NFP (and FLP not in parliament currently) in any position at all to become the government of the day so that the workers get fair treatment?

Lesson 3:  The use of police and military

Many people today may be shocked that the police and the police commissioner have involved themselves heavily in what is after all an industrial relations dispute which is not a crime leading to any potential damage to person or property.

But how many remember the previous times in the history of Fiji when police and he military have been used to suppress industrial actions?

Remember the colonial days when farmers used to be on strike because of the low price of cane paid by a CSR which was minting money, and the colonial government, through the use of the indigenous Fijian high chiefs of the day, sent the military into the cane fields?

Remember the 1959 oil workers’ industrial action by unionists James Anthony and Apisai Tora and the street riots, all suppressed by the police and the military?

How many Fiji citizens are demanding to know why the police have been taking their  heavy-handed actions such as arresting law abiding unionists and even taking people into custody “for questioning”?  Indeed, what “crimes” are the police investigating by taking unionists and workers into custody?

How many Fiji citizens are demanding to know why the CEO of the HRADC is atrociously attacking the Fiji Times, the conveyer of news, instead of speaking up for the legitimate human rights of workers?

Indeed, how many of our responsible citizens of Fiji are pointing out that the police and Commissioner of Police are all acting under a 2013 Constitution which has been unilaterally imposed on Fiji by the military Bainimarama Government, without the approval of any elected parliament?

How many of our knowledgeable citizens of Fiji are pointing out the Bainimarama Government can even call on the military to act during an industrial action, as Section 131 (2) of their 2013 Constitution states: “It shall be the overall responsibility of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces to ensure at all times the security, defence and well-being of Fiji and all Fijians”.

Do the WAF workers engaging in the industrial action for jobs security and incomes even know that their industrial rights are severely circumscribed by the 2013 Constitution which has been imposed on them,  and that it must be changed if their industrial action is to be treated fairly by the law, as it was under the 1997 Constitution?.

Sadly, there was no public debate in Fiji when a former Army officer was appointed as the Commissioner of Police, even though a very legitimate question may have been asked (as should have the PSC): were there no career police officers who were being groomed to take the top job?

Lesson 4     Workers Warriors Comprising Themselves

There is little doubt about the courage of unionist Felix Anthony and other “Workers’ Warriors” who front up to government forces and the police even at the cost of arrest and internment.

But how many will connect that the current extremist police action is connected to the 2006 military coup which was initially supported indirectly by Felix Anthony who served on FNPF Boards (until removed), FLP Leader Mahendra  Chaudhry who became Bainimarama’s Finance Minister after the 2006 coup (until removed)) and even Father Kevin Barr who became Chairman of the Wages Councils (until removed with some rough words from Bainimarama)?

For Fiji workers to revert to the conditions of work that prevailed before the 2006 military coup days now requires the massive task of constitutional changes that Fiji society is not even debating or contemplating, unlike the days, months and years following the 1987 coup.

Unfortunately, many of our responsible citizens who supported the People’s Charter exercise and the Yash Ghai Commission exercise disappeared from view after these progressive initiatives were unilaterally aborted by the Bainimarama Government.

None of these responsible citizens (including the Workers’ Warriors) have ever publicly admitted to the mistakes they made in supporting illegal military coups.

Are Fiji workers back to square one, not having learnt the lessons of history, and bound to repeat the same mistakes?

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