30 Jul 2013

Union fears sugar mills could fall into hands of Fiji military

4:44 pm on 30 July 2013

The union representing Fiji's sugar mill workers is worried that plants may be run by the military if industrial action goes ahead.

The leadership of the Fiji Sugar and General Workers Union says two thirds of members have voted to take strike action over pay, which is said to be below the poverty line.

Philippa Tolley reports:

No date for any possible industrial action has been set as the ballot is still being validated by the Labour Ministry and the union has yet to hold a meeting of it's executive committee as funeral arrangements are being made for a mill worker who died following an industrial accident. But in the last few days, the attorney general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, released a statement saying that one way or another, the mills will need to continue to operate even if some people abandon their jobs. The General Secretary of the Sugar and General Workers Union, Felix Anthony, says he considers this further intimidation.

FELIX ANTHONY: So we take this as a threat indicating possibly that we may have the military man the mills or even the sugar industry being placed under the Essential Industries Decree that would effectively disenfranchise all sugar workers from any rights whatsoever, including the right to strike.

The Union has complained to the International Trade Union Confederation and the International Labour Organisation over the intimidation. It says management of the Fiji Sugar Corporation held work meetings in order to persuade union members not to vote and threatened to turn the names of those who took part in the ballot to the government. The union says police and military officers also monitored the voting at the polling sites. The General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Sharan Burrow, says the Confederation condemns what it calls extremely serious violations of the right to have freedom of association.

But in an updated statement, Fiji's Attorney General said the government's concern was for the 200 thousand Fijians who depended on the industry for their livelihood and he highlighted the investment made by the government to rescue the industry from collapse.

STATEMENT FROM AIYAZ SAYED-KHAIYUM: As a result of our reforms, FSC employees have received a 5.3% pay rise and improved benefits, and can look forward to better job security and more opportunities as the FSC continues to improve its performance. Given this enormous investment and the importance of this industry to the national economy, the Bainimarama Government cannot allow this industry to collapse because of the actions of a minority.

The sugar cane crushing season is underway in Fiji. The head of Business and Economics at the University of the South Pacific, Professor Biman Prasad, says the sugar industry is still struggling, as despite efforts to improve efficiency at the mills more investment is still needed in the infrastructure.

He would like there to be talks between the Corporation and the union so the industry is not hit further.

BIMAN PRASAD: A strike action will obviously impact on the farmers and the cost the farmers will have to bear in terms of delayed crushing, but also I think not resolving the union issue will take away people who are skilled, people who would be required to run the mills.

The union leader, Felix Anthony, says he hopes the Fiji Sugar Corporation will agree to discussions in a attempt to resolve the stand-off.