Dr. Carlos A. Tomada
Minister of Labour, Employment, and Social Security of Argentina
Dear Dr. Tomada,
Human Rights Watch urges the government of Argentina, as a member of the Governing Body of the International Labour Organization (ILO), to support the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry on Fiji at its March 2014 session.
Since Commodore Frank Bainimarama took power in a military coup on December 5, 2006, his government has arbitrarily arrested and detained critics, and instituted heavy censorship. The military and police have continued to arrest and detain human rights defenders, journalists, and labor leaders, particularly when they take part in any form of public protest.
ILO supervisory mechanisms have investigated and found serious and systematic violations of the right to freedom of association, including beatings, threats, arrests on false charges and constant surveillance of workers trying to form a union. The Fiji government has imposed severe restrictions on labor rights for workers in the public sector and in private sectors of the economy designated as ‘essential industries’.
The ILO has sought to engage in a constructive dialogue with the Fiji government in order to end these serious violations and restore respect for the right to freedom of association but these efforts have failed because of the Fiji government’s intransigence. The Fiji government ejected an ILO mission in September 2012 that was sent to verify allegations made by Fijian workers. Juan Somavia, then director-general of the ILO, said in a press statement that the decision to expel the ILO mission from the country only “puts a greater spotlight on the critical situation of freedom of association in Fiji and only fuels international solidarity with the Fiji Trade Union Congress, the Fiji Islands Council of Trade Unions, and the Fiji Teachers’ Association.” To date, the government continues to refuse to allow the ILO mission to return.
Since the complaint for a Commission of Inquiry was filed in June 2013, the Fiji government has continued its attack on the trade union movement.
In July 2013, the government deployed a heavy police and military presence to Lautoka Mill to intimidate Fiji sugar workers who were voting on whether to go on strike to demand an increase in wages and highlight work safety concerns at the mill. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) reported that the mill management threatened to turn workers’ names over to the government. Police and military were situated at union polling sites, and threatened and intimidated the workers. The Attorney General stated the government would intervene to keep the mills running in the case of a strike through use of replacement workers. Though union members voted overwhelmingly for the strike, the continued threats and intimidation by the police, military and mill management led the union to call off the strike out of concern for the safety of the workers.
On December 18, 2013, the government issued an amendment to the Essential National Industries Decree which extended its coverage to the: 1. Pine Industry; 2. Mahogany Industry, 3. Fire Prevention Services Ltd., 4. Local Government; and 5. Airports Fiji Limited. All of the companies in the pine industry were unionized and the Tropik Wood Industries Limited Workers had commenced a secret ballot for industrial action in support of their Log of Claims for 2013. This ballot was halted by Ministry of Labor officials pursuant to the amendment of the above-mentioned decree. Tropik Wood management immediately issued a memo to all employees advising them that there was no longer a union in the company and that union officials no longer had any authority to represent them. The Attorney General made clear that the purpose of the decree was to eliminate the union, stating, “We hope now that employees are given more control over their own work environment by being able to negotiate directly with the employers rather than having some outside trade unions coming in and making unreasonable claims things would improve.”
The government is also using the courts to harass and intimidate union leaders. On January 9, 2014, Fiji Trade Unions Congress president Daniel Urai was arrested for allegedly instigating an “unlawful” strike. The police also entered the union office and seized computers and mobile phones. The court ordered Urai released on bail, and he will face trial in March.
While the new Fiji constitution recognizes workers’ rights to join a union and participate in union activities, it simultaneously provides broad limitations for the “purpose of regulating the registration of trade unions” and the “collective bargaining process” that serve to seriously undermine the exercise of those rights. Similarly problematic restrictions are placed on the right to freedom of association, which can be curbed in the interest of “national security, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, or the orderly conduct of elections.”
Despite ratifying all the major core ILO conventions, the government of Fiji has continually ignored the recommendations of the ILO supervisory mechanisms since 2006. This pattern of non-cooperation, coupled with the seriousness of the rights violations, demands the ILO take further steps.
Accordingly, Human Rights Watch urges you to support the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry on Fiji in March 2014.
Deputy Director, Asia division
Human Rights Watch
His Excellency Mr. Alberto Pedro D’Alotto
Ambassador Permanent Representative
The above letter was also sent to other members of the Governing Body of the International Labour Organization (ILO) including Germany, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, United States, France, Hungary, India, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, UK, Tanzania,Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, and Zambia.