In recent months Fiji’s Interim Government under Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has launched a new crackdown on unions.
In mid-July, following a decree prohibiting full-time union leaders from representing workers on a range of industry bodies, the secretary of the Fiji Trade Union Congress (FTUC) Felix Anthony and the general secretary of the Fiji Public Service Association, Rajeshwar Singh, visited Australia seeking support from Australian trade unions.
In late July, the Fijian government upped the ante, amending the Public Service Act to stop union pay roll deductions for public servants.
Then, on August 4, it used the Public Emergency Regulations to arrest and charge FTUC President Daniel Urai and a Hotels Union staff member for conducting a workplace meeting without a permit.
This isn’t the first time unionists have been attacked. The regime has been systematically denying permits to hold union meetings. In February, Felix Anthony and other unionists were beaten while being detained and questioned by Fijian soldiers.
The Bainimarama government has now issued a decree declaring the public sector, sugar, airline and tourism industries to be essential industries. This curtails the right to strike and effectively bans the right to collectively bargain, receive overtime pay or be represented by independent trade unions.
The Bainimarama Interim Government came to power in December 2006 in a military coup. The coup ousted Qarase, a representative of the old Fijian elite who was trying to rehabilitate the corrupt leaders of the right-wing coup of 2000.
Qarase had become prime minister in the aftermath of the 2000 coup, which removed Labour Party Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, the country’s first Indo-Fijian leader.
Bainimarama’s coup was initially supported by the Labour Party and many Indo-Fijians. Bainimarama was determined to modernise Fijian capitalism, end the racism of the Constitution and break the cycle of coups that have plagued recent Fijian history.
The 1987 election result, where Fijian Timothy Bavandra became Fiji’s first Labour Prime Minister, showed that indigenous Fijians were beginning to put class interests above the traditional ethnic divide between ethnic Fijians and Indo-Fijians.
But since then, every time the racist politics of the traditional Fijian ruling class is challenged, there has been a coup attempt.
But the coups set back the prospects of Fijian capitalism. There was an exodus of the better-educated Indo-Fijians who took their money and skills out of the country.
Bainimarama’s coup was fundamentally different; aiming to remove racial discrimination from the Constitution and democratise Fiji. However, Bainimarama, ruling in the name of a re-cast Fijian capitalism, was never going to be able to consistently defend the rights of Fijian workers, or consistently fight the racism in Fijian politics. For that the independent mobilisation of Fijian workers—regardless of ethnic background—was needed.
But the Labour Party and the FTUC put their faith in Bainimarama and his promise of a new election on the basis of a re-vamped non-racial constitution. Chaudhry accepted the post of Finance Minister but resigned in August 2008, along with the Labour Party’s two other ministers.
As the economy stalled, Bainimarama forced workers to pay. In December 2008, the Interim Government moved to privatise Fiji’s airports and ports. In February 2009, it over-ruled a 20 per cent wage increase ordered by the Wages Council for the lowest paid Fijian workers. Pensions were cut. Bus fares were increased 30 per cent.
Bainimarama initially promised elections for April 2009. Now the proposal is for discussions on constitutional reform to begin in September 2012 and for elections in 2014.
Patience with Bainimarama has worn thin. In May 2011, Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry called for fresh elections by the end of 2012. Now the FTUC is also calling for new elections. Tragically however, the FTUC and the Labour Party—however reluctantly—are collaborating with the Fiji Democracy Movement (FDM), representatives of the traditional elites who have no interest in real democracy in Fiji. The ACTU held a solidarity protest in Sydney in September that drew support from the FDM.
And the support from international unions such as the ACTU or the ILO has often gone along with calls for action from foreign governments against Fiji. But the Australian government is no friend of Fiji workers or Fijian democracy. Successive Australian governments have looked to Fiji’s old elite to protect Australian business interests in what it regards as its imperialist backyard.
Bainimarama remains popular. A recent poll showed two-thirds supported him. There seems little support among the population for a return to the communal politics of the past.
Looking to “great and powerful friends” such as the Australian government and the FDM will be the kiss of death to the fight for democracy and union rights. To tackle Bainimarama and the old elites, the Fiji Labour Party and the FTUC need to look to independent class mobilisation across the ethnic divide.
By Ian Rintoul