26 Jul 2013

Mill workers in Fiji being polled on whether to strike

5:33 pm on 26 July 2013

Sugar mill workers in Fiji are expected to decide over the next day or so whether they will take strike action over poor pay.

Earlier this week, the Fiji Sugar Corporation announced the workers would get 5.3% wage rises and improved access for health insurance and the special welfare fund, while overtime is being paid for the first time in several years.

But the Fiji Trades Union Council says the small increase just shows how out of touch the corporation is.

It says the workers real wages have declined by 40% in the past 7 years, while the shorter harvests mean they can remain unemployed for longer, sometimes up to 8 months a year.

Felix Anthony of the Fiji Sugar and General Workers' Union told Don Wiseman the small increase is no consolation.

FELIX ANTHONY: It equates to $8 a week for the worker and that is clearly insufficient. And we believe that there needs to be a sincere effort made by the employer to see how we can compensate for the real decline in wage over the period. And there needs to be negotiations with the union, which the employer is refusing to do.

DON WISEMAN: So your contact with the corporation, with the chairman, has led to nothing?

FA: Nothing at all.

DW: So what will you do?

FA: We are currently conducting a secret ballot for industrial action, and I will await the verdict of the membership. If they do vote that the union should take industrial action, then the executive committee of the union will then decide when and how to proceed.

DW: How many of the mill workers are union members?

FA: About 900 plus.

DW: As a percentage that's how many?

FA: They would constitute the majority of workers. My membership is the largest within the sugar mills.

DW: It would bring crushing to a halt?

FA: Yes.

DW: The deputy prime minister says that this grandstanding by you. What do you say to that?

FA: I don't want to respond to any personal attacks. I'd rather he talk about the issues. The issues are pretty straightforward. We have been patient enough for seven years. We have considered the situation the industry was in. And we waited patiently until such time the chairman of the Sugar Corporation declared that the Sugar Corporation had sound financial footing. And it is only fair that the corporation considers the plight of workers, as well. And by any standards, a $8 a week is, if anything at all, I think it's an insult to the workers and we should not, I think, be mesmerised by the 5% or 5.3%. But I think we need to look at the increase in real dollar terms because, at the end of the day, that's what the worker takes home.

DW: Under the current regime, industrial action is something of a rare beast in Fiji, isn't it? So do you have concerns that you'll be allowed to proceed?

FA: I'm following the law, and we'll have to wait and see whether we'll be allowed to proceed or not. But I think it'll be interesting to see if we're allowed to proceed and if the workers in the sugar industry really do have the right to go on strike.

DW: When do you think you'll know?

FA: We should know on the weekend.