Poor wages stymie Fiji's garment sector
A union backed charity says poverty-level wages are holding Fiji back from being a niche player as the "clean clothes producer" of the region.
Fiji could fill a big gap in the market for ethically produced garments but low wages are holding it back.
That's according to a New Zealand-based charity aiming to promote worker rights and ease poverty among the region's developing countries.
The group UnionAid is running a pilot project in Fiji focusing on helping raise worker awareness of their rights in face of the diminished power of the country's unions.
An executive with the charity which is backed by New Zealand unions, Michael Naylor, told Sally Round a factory job in Suva does not mean a lift out of poverty.
MICHAEL NAYLOR: The big grievance that people have is around wages. Wages are really low. The minimum wage in Fiji is two Fijian dollars an hour, which is approximately NZ$1.40. In the garment sector they have wage regulated order which is kind of like an awards system set by wage councils and that is $2.15 Fijian an hour, so about $1.50 New Zealand and in the manufacturing sector it's about the same, slightly higher.
SALLY ROUND: Are some people not being paid the minimum wage?
MN: Yes, what we hear anecdotally and this is brought forward by an ILO report that happened in 2012 which really started this off is that we understand there are certainly cases and it's not clear how many but there's anecdotally cases where people aren't even getting those minimum wages. So for example in the garment sector the wage regulated order is FJ$2.15. There's a learner wage of $1.81 and that's only to be paid for three months but we've heard cases of people being kept on that for a year and over a year and also people not being paid the proper overtime that they're working and things like that. We want to first educate workers around what their rights are there and then how to take a grievance, how to deal with the employer or go to the Ministry of Labour if they're having issues around not being paid those rightful wages. The garment sector is probably not quite as big as it used to be but it's still a major employer particularly in the Suva area, so some of the factories I visited had up to 800 workers and particularly for women it's a really big employer.
SR: What is the impact of these low wages?
MN: That was one of the things that surprised me from my visit. I would have thought that workers with some level of security and a formal job would almost be middle class. That's what you'd expect, but I was surprised to learn from talking with the workers and also with some of the social NGOs that in actual fact it's often these garment workers who are the lowest paid people and who are living in the squatter settlements in and around the Suva area. So certainly it's wages which are not really enough to live on. The people I talked to often said they needed to work overtime every evening and on the weekends in order to make ends meet. It means often less time spent with families, alot of financial stress, even things as simple as buying food or doctor visits was something that was raised as a big difficulty and a concern for people. I have to note that the government has also done some good things around providing social services, especially free education has been a big step forward. That's one thing that's been taken off the list of pressures at least.
SR: You looked at health and safety as well. What are the conditions like in the factories?
MN: I think the conditions there were OK. They're big factories and there's a lot of people in them, fairly well ventilated. As far as I understand most of the time people get rest breaks. Yeh, compared to some of the sweat shops of Asia they wouldn't be particularly bad conditions and it's actually something you would think the Fijian garment factories would want to leverage - rather than trying to be the lowest cost producer of garments, they could actually market themselves as a good producer. I think there's a basis for doing that. If they paid more they could be the clean clothes garment producer of the South Pacific.
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