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“Father Kevin Barr: an enigmatic champion against poverty”(19/9/2020)

21/09/2020

Barr: an enigmatic warrior against poverty

This week, I join most of Fiji, including my  many progressive friends, in mourning the passing of Father Kevin Barr, a good man, a lifelong fighter against poverty and homelessness, for the good of humanity and not for personal gain.

But Father Barr would want Fiji not just to just mourn his passing, but more importantly learn from his own personal experience in trying to improve the livelihoods of the poorest workers in Fiji.

I write this critical account based on our long association which began with my 2006 study Just Wages for Fiji: lifting workers out of poverty, which had been commissioned by the Ecumenical Center for Research, Education and Advocacy (ECREA), at which Father Barr was Acting Director.

In the fourteen years since then and even though I disagreed with Kevin over his implicit support of the 2006 coup, we still collaborated on many progressive fronts, and he often wrote to me in support of my work, as recently as two months ago.

I write this critical article because the same horrible dilemma has faced many progressive Fiji citizens after every military coup: do good citizens support a government of the day because of the “good cause” they believe in with the hope of bringing about some good in the lives of the people, even if the “methods” of the government and government itself are  fundamentally illegal?

Or does the good citizen constructively oppose the fundamental illegality of a government because of one’s belief that it will do fundamental long term damage to society, even if one’s  opposition makes you irrelevant to the lives of ordinary citizens in the short term.

Everyone makes their personal choices as did Father Kevin Barr following the 2006 military coup, with some of the consequences explained by this article.

ECREA, Father Barr and workers’ wages

In 2005, Father Barr who was then Acting Director of ECREA was deeply concerned that workers’ wages (both union and non-union) were grossly failing to keep pace with inflation in the cost of living, and thousands of workers (especially non-unionized) were falling into poverty (read my account of “The 2007 Reform of Wages Council” in Fiji Times, 15 June 2019).

ECREA commissioned me to do a thorough study of the weaknesses of wages determination under the existing Wages Councils.

I remind that that it was the SDL Qarase Government and the then Minister of Labor (Kenneth Zinck) who approved the study and gave me full access to Ministry of Labour files on the minutes of evidence of all the Wages Councils that had been in operation for the previous thirty years.

Based on the comprehensive statistics and analysis in the Report, the late Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi (then Vice President of Fiji) accurately stated that government had failed to represent the national interest, with wages starting from low levels with long delays in adjustment to prices. He called for a strengthening of the Secretariat, full disclosure of financial records so that the ability of employers to pay the recommended increases could be compatible.

My Report had recommended that different minimum wages be set for different industries by different Wages Councils with a Common Chairman, with representatives of employers large and small, and representatives of workers (not necessarily unionists).

The Wages Councils must issue compulsory annual wage determinations, fully backed by the Department of Labor, Fiji Bureau of Statistics. Employers’ with any claims of inability to pay must be backed by confidential audited financial accounts, independently checked with Fiji Revenue and Customs Authority.

To its great credit at the beginning, the Bainimarama Military Government continued the process that the Qarase Government had started and appointed the progressive and active Father Kevin Barr as Chairman of all the Wages Councils.

Father Kevin Barr accepted the appointment in 2008 and went to work with great enthusiasm, with the Wages Councils beginning to issue the Wages Regulations Orders (WROs).

But to an economist who had studied the economic impact of all previous coups, the signs were ominous.

My prophetic 2009 Rev Niukula Lecture

In 2009, ECREA and Father Barr asked me to give the Rev Paula Niukula Lecture on “Just Wages in Fiji” held at the USP Lecturer Theater on 15 April 2009.

That complete lecture, including the introduction of Rev Niukula by Father Kevin Barr, may be viewed here on Youtube. Fiji Times readers might want to catch a glimpse of a dynamic relevant USP in very different times, and a fascinating diverse audience, just eleven years ago.

(video) The 2009 Rev Niukula Lecture by Professor Wadan Narsey. For ECREA.
Topic:  The futility of fighting for Just Wages in post-coup Fiji.

I set out all the statistics showing how all the military coups had set Fiji back in contrast to other similar countries like Mauritius.

But most importantly, I asked the question at the top of this article:

“Were Rev Paula Niukula alive today, he would be as strong a proponent for “just wages” in Fiji as is Father Kevin Barr. But he would have asked the more difficult question: can the struggle for just wages in Fiji be separated from the need to support constitutional law and order, the need to oppose the illegal 2006 overthrow of a lawfully elected government and the attempted 2009 abrogation of the 1997 Constitution, and the need to support media freedom and the full human rights of all its citizens? 

I believe that Rev Niukula, however unpopular it might have made him, would have opposed the views of some good people of Fiji who have supported the 2006 military coup and are supporting the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution, because their powerful ambition to “do good” has taken precedence over their commitment to constitutional law and order: to put it in terms used before, these good citizens have willingly supported illegal methods, to achieve what they think are their good causes”.

In my 2009 Niukula Lecture I named all the “good people” and “good religious organizations” which had explicitly or implicitly supported one military coup or other (I won’t name them here).

But I concluded that “I have no doubt that Father Kevin Barr will struggle away in good faith, trying to use the Wages Council mechanisms to increase the minimum wages for the poorest workers of this country.   But he and the other good citizens who have supported the 2006 military coup, have also helped to create the broad economic climate that will ensure that  his efforts on the Wages Council front will largely and unfortunately, be in vain.”

And so it proved. In 2012, in total frustration, Father Kevin Barr resigned as Wages Council Chairman and from the Bainimarama Government’s Poverty Alleviation Committee.

Kevin Barr on Why He Resigned

This is what Father Barr himself wrote (“Why I resigned”):

“When we began our work (2008) there had been no increases in worker’s wages for three years. Our first set of wage proposals was due to come into effect on the 1st Feb. 2009.  Without any consultation the PM announced that, under pressure from a strong lobby of employers, he was deferring the Wage Regulation Orders to 1st July 2009. 

The second set of wage proposals was then set to come into effect on the 1st July 2010 but again was deferred for ten months  until the 1st May 2011 and was reduced by 5%.  All this was done without any consultation with me or the Wages Councils. 

In 2011 there were no meetings of the Wages Councils due to the stubborn determination of the Permanent Secretary (Taito Waqa) to have a formula which was unacceptable to all parties based mostly on productivity. 

The Wages Councils met in early 2012 and approved a set of Wage proposals to come into effect on the 15th August 2012.  Then again, without any consultation there was an announcement through the media that these wage increases had been deferred until 31st October and the Wages Councils would be asked to reconsider them because of objections raised by some employers.

Government [with the collusion of the Ministry of Labour] allowed this greedy and selfish group of employers to get their own way and crush the hopes and dreams of the workers of the country for modest wage increases to assist them cope with the rapidly increasing cost of living.”

[Father Barr quoted my 2006 Study (Just Wages for Fiji) to show that it was all a repeat of what had taken place for thirty years previously.]

Father Barr complained  “Despite some good pro-poor programs and constant beautiful statements there are no economic policies that touch the root causes of poverty.  All the fine words about poverty alleviation we hear over the radio and TV are nothing more than hot air unless there is positive, effective action.”

Father Barr also named a powerful Minister (who is quite the news and blogosphere currently) who “allowed their buddies to influence them chose to obstruct the established process and called for delays and decreases.  This is “crony capitalism”, he railed.

But Barr was told where to go

When the frustrated Father Barr publicly lashed out at what he called the government’s “crony capitalism”, he was personally called on the phone by a Very Powerful Person, and told in rather rough terms that his Fiji resident visa was not going to be renewed and he had better make plans to leave.

Despite the fact that the Bainimarama Government had hired many foreigners as Permanent Secretaries and Board  Members, “foreigners” like Father Barr, despite their commendable work on housing and incomes for the poor, could be told that they were no longer welcome in Fiji.  So also have many other foreign Permanent Secretaries.

Father Barr was only allowed to stay on after he apologized to the very powerful person.

That unfortunately is still the story of many good people in Fiji who have attempted to do their duty.

But Father Kevin Barr will be remembered not just for his passionate support for lifting workers out of poverty through the Wages Councils but also all the good work that he has done in Fiji for housing for the poor and his attempts .

 

Father Kevin Barr at the Launching of my Just Wages for Fiji  by the late Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi (Vice President of Fiji).

 

 

 

 

 

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