Attacks on Freedom of Association Need Urgent Action
(New York) – International Labour Organization (ILO) members should support the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry on Fiji at the March 2014 session of the ILO Governing Body, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to key member states.
Such a commission would play a critical role in holding the government of Fiji accountable for serious, ongoing violations of the right to freedom of association, including intimidation, beatings and arrests of workers trying to form unions, and onerous legal restrictions on freedom of association.
“The government of Fiji strips workers of their fundamental rights to form unions, directly contributing to a climate of fear and repression in the workplace,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Government statements about restoring democracy in Fiji ring hollow when officials systematically violate international standards that protect workers and their union representatives.”
Supervisory mechanisms of the ILO have investigated and found that Fiji has imposed severe restrictions on labor rights for workers both in the public sector and in private sectors of the economy unilaterally designated “essential industries” by the government. The Fiji government has been unwilling to engage in constructive dialogue with the ILO to end these violations and restore respect for freedom of association. In September 2012, Fiji ejected an ILO mission sent to investigate and assess allegations of abuse by Fiji workers. The government has not admitted an ILO investigation mission to the country since that time.
A new Fiji constitution is set to come into force when a new government is elected. While it recognizes worker’s rights to join a union and participate in union activities, it simultaneously provides overly broad limitations for the “purpose of regulating the registration of trade unions” and the “collective bargaining process” that would seriously undermine the exercise of those rights.
Since the complaint seeking a Commission of Inquiry was filed in June 2013, the Fiji government has continued its attack on the trade union movement. In July, the government deployed a heavy police and military presence at Lautoka Mill to intimidate Fiji sugar workers, who were voting on whether to strike over safety conditions and wages. On January 9, the Fiji Trade Unions Congress president, Daniel Urai, was arrested for allegedly instigating an “unlawful” strike.
Although Fiji has ratified all major core ILO conventions, the military government that took power in 2006 has consistently has ignored the recommendations of the ILO supervisory mechanisms. This pattern of non-cooperation, coupled with the seriousness of rights abuses, has prompted the call for an ILO commission of inquiry.
“Fundamental labor rights protections have been denied for far too long to the workers of Fiji, and establishing an ILO commission of inquiry could start to address that,” Robertson said. “If the international community fails to act now, it will only add insult to injury caused by the government’s defiance of its international obligations.”