Non-observance by Fiji of the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention

Fatin Liyana Abdul Rahim

Policy Brief: Non-observance by Fiji of the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87)

The seventh item discussed on the agenda at the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) 323rd Governing Body session was a complaint concerning non-observance by Fiji of the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87). The complaint was filed against Fiji, which ratified the Convention in 2002, by the Worker’s delegates to the 102nd session of the International Labour Conference in 2013.

Background to the issue

The issue was first raised in 2009 when a complaint was filed against the Government of Fiji by the Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC), the Fiji Islands Council of Trade Unions (FICTU), the Fijian Teachers’ Association (FTA), Education International (EI) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). This case is being referred to as ‘Case 2723’. The issues surrounding Case 2723 include alleged acts of assault, harassment, intimidation and arrest and detention of trade union leaders as well as members by the Government of Fiji. The government also allegedly interfered with internal trade union affairs, dismissed a trade union leader in the public education sector, imposed excessive restrictions on trade union meetings and imposed decrees to limit trade union rights. Due to the seriousness of this issue, the Committee on Freedom of Association requested that the ILO undertake a ‘direct contacts mission’, which is a form of technical assistance. In May 2012, the Fijian Government approved the initiation of ILO’s ‘direct contacts mission’. The mission began in September 2012 and a report was produced and presented to the Governing Body in November 2012.

More recently, in October 2013, the Governing Body noted the complaint against the Government of Fiji for non-observance of the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87), which was brought by Workers’ delegates to the 102nd Session of the International Labour Conference (2013). This issue was raised again at the 320th Governing Body session in March 2014. The Governing Body called for the Government of Fiji to accept the ILO’s direct contacts mission. It was also decided that, should the direct contacts mission not take place in time for the 322nd session, then the Governing Body should appoint a Commission of Inquiry. In September 2014, upon receiving notice, the Government of Fiji allowed the direct contacts mission to work for a week in Fiji in October 2014. The mission’s report was made available to the 322nd Governing Body session in November 2014 resulting in the Governing Body postponing the decision on appointing a Commission of Inquiry until its 323rd session, but at the same time requesting further information from the Government of Fiji regarding the said complaints.

Responses by the Government of Fiji

In February 2015, the Government of Fiji provided a response to address the issue of the non-observance of the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention 1948 (N0. 87). The government produced a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between itself, the workers’ group and the employers’ group of Fiji, which encompasses the intention of the three parties to review labour laws and employment relations practices in Fiji. Any review of the laws will be done in accordance with the Constitution of Fiji and with the intention of ensuring the economic wellbeing and continuous sustainable livelihoods of the citizens of Fiji. The review process of laws will involve the ILO and the Fijian government has agreed to work closely with international bodies so as to ensure an effective outcome. Any recommendations that result from the review will be submitted to parliament for approval and adoption. The MoU also encompasses the agreement of the government to establish a committee to review the Essential National Industries (Employment) Decree 2011, and the committee will ensure that all stakeholders are represented. Additionally, to improve the livelihood of the workforce, the government of Fiji has increased the national minimum wage (a move that is expected to benefit 100 000 unskilled workers) and has also increased salaries in 10 sectors covered by the Wages Regulations Order. The government of Fiji is also drafting amendments to the Workmen’s Compensation Act 1978, which relates to compensation on death or disability. The government of Fiji also highlighted that it has made available free medicine for workers earning less than $20 000 annually and electrical subsidies for eligible groups.

The government added that it has introduced scholarships and tertiary education loan schemes for eligible groups to promote sustainable opportunities. The Fijian government has also agreed to engage the ILO to provide technical assistance to the three parties to the MoU in order to ensure conformance to the ILO’s international standards.

Decision held at the 323rd Governing Body meeting

As a result of the Fijian government’s responses and the commitments set out in the tripartite MoU, the 323rd Governing Body meeting decided to defer the decision to establish a commission of inquiry to its 325th session, which will take place in November 2015. The Governing Body has also requested that the Fijian government and the workers’ and employers’ groups submit a joint implementation report at the 324th Governing Body session, in accordance with the Tripartite MoU that has been signed.

The delegates supported the decision to defer the decision on establishing a commission of inquiry. Mr Luc Cortebeeck, speaking on behalf of the workers’ group of the ILO, commented that the Tripartite MoU is a remarkable and welcome change in the attitude of the Fijian government. Mr Felix Anthony, speaking on behalf of the Fijian workers’ group, recognised that a lot of efforts are required by the social partners to achieve the goals that have been set and stated that the workers’ group is committed to delivering all that has been agreed to in the MoU, with the ILO convention being the guiding rule.

The Fiji employers’ representative commented that Fiji’s economy has grown significantly and that their focus is to work towards meeting the objectives set out in the MoU and to create an environment where people have access to decent jobs.

Challenges

There are certain possible challenges to the situation in Fiji that may delay the goals expected by the ILO and the Tripartite MoU. It is important to note that Fiji had its first democratic election in 2014. Although democracy is a positive step, or as United Nations describes it, ‘a universally recognised ideal’, it is rather difficult to implement changes overnight. Fiji is still experimenting with democracy and it may require many years before the society can fully accept and adapt to new values after years of political tensions. Racial tension will remain an issue in Fiji and has the potential to be very disruptive politically, economically and socially. It is therefore appropriate for the government to emphasise and concentrate on addressing the issues of political turmoil and racial tension in tandem with issues relating to employment and job sustainability.  Indeed the deferment of the decision to establish the commission of inquiry will provide some relief and time for the government of Fiji to consolidate all efforts to put all tenets of democracy in place first. Therefore the government must ensure a fair and free election, freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of movement, freedom of expression, and a distinct separation of powers being the judicial, legislative and executive.

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