21 Dec 2011

Labour rights in Fiji textile sector disputed

5:10 pm on 21 December 2011

A worker in Fiji's textile industry has spoken out in response to assertions by the Fiji regime that labour rights in the country are not being abused.

This follows last week's verbal jousting between the interim government, Fiji business and unions from Australia and New Zealand after the unions' fact-finding mission was refused entry to Fiji.

Sally Round reports.

Last week's failed mission involving leaders of Australia and New Zealand's umbrella union bodies captured the headlines.

It came after nearly a year of reports alleging regime intimidation and harassment of union leaders and abuse of fundamental labour rights, and a public slamming by the International Labour Organisation

The interim regime countered this latest publicity with a flurry of statements denouncing group members and their Fiji counterparts.

"The ACTU neglects to remind itself and tell the rest of the world that dozens of trade unions exist in Fiji and freely negotiate and assert the rights of their members with the employers. It is unfortunate that the ACTU, its New Zealand alliance and Felix Anthony and his accomplices continue to seek ways to undermine the Fijian economy and the livelihood of the ordinary Fijians."

While a new decree does ban trade union activity in certain so-called vital industries, Fiji's economically-important clothing and footwear sector is still allowed visits and representation from unions.

But union sources say this is not happening.

We spoke to one worker who does not want to be named or identified, fearing retribution like losing her job.

Her voice is disguised and her words have been revoiced to ensure her anonymity.

In my factory we closely work together - the union and the company - the only problem is when we applied for a permit so we could meet our union delegates the government didn't approve it.

Meeting permits are necessary under the regime's Public Emergency Regulations.

The worker says they've been denied permits twice before and that's a problem for negotiating wage increases.

Now we don't know if we can have an increase for the next year or not because a union rep can't come over because they refused our permit.

Every year they negotiate our increase. so we are happy to go through the union because the life we have in Fiji is very difficult. I can't do it alone.

She says the workers earn about eight US dollars a day.

Transport costs about 2.70 a day and food and other bills are rising. Despite two wage increases this year, it's not enough

Most of them are single mums, paying rent , paying electricity and water. with the amount of money they get, still they can't feed the family.

The President of the Textile Clothing Footwear Council of Fiji, Kalpesh Solanki, rejects claims that worker's rights are not being upheld in his industry.

And he says the overseas unions' push to persuade people not to buy Fiji-made clothing and shoes will affect the mostly women workers from low socio-economic backgrounds.

If these proposals come to fruition then we are basically looking at jeapardising the livelihoods of over 4,000 people and our industry's just recovering from a massive reduction in exports from 2009.

That's something the textile worker we spoke to does agree with.

Because most of us working there in the garment factory are single mothers. They are the ones providing the bread and butter in the family. They pay the water bills, the electricity bills. If people are going to close it where will we end up? We're going to end up borrowing money in town.

The worker says it's a lie that trade unions can freely negotiate and assert the rights of their members with employers as the regime claims.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the Pacific region has offered to help the interim government make good promises it made in Geneva last year to lift the Public Emergency Regulations.