Fiji union leader arrested as mass civil service strike looms

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Half of Fiji’s civil service will begin a near-general strike on Thursday morning (Fiji Time), despite the arrest of a union leader by the military early on Wednesday.

The strike by more than 10,000 civil servants, including teachers, will add to an already week-long strike by about 1200 nurses over a five percent pay cut and other issues.

The government of the South Pacific island nation employs about 20,000 civil servants, although a recent estimate put that number at 30,000 including casual and non-permanent government employees.

As matters came to a head today, the military-led regime refused to concede to the unions’ demands saying it could sustain the strike. Police refused permits to picket in public places, while the military warned that striking workers would not be allowed to picket at workplaces.

Taniela Tabu, the general secretary of the Viti National Union of Taukei Workers (Fiji National Union of Indigenous Workers) was arrested at about 6am (Fiji Time) on Wednesday by soldiers after comments he made on national television the night before.

Tabu had called on the military-led regime to remove interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry saying he was a stumbling block to resolving the industrial dispute between the government and affiliate unions of the Fiji Islands Council of Trade Unions (FICTU).

He declared the strike would go ahead from Thursday morning after the interim cabinet rejected an amended proposal from FICTU unions, saying the state could not afford it.

The Fiji military has not released details of Tabu’s detention, only confirming he had been taken to Queen Elizabeth Barracks (QEB), the main military establishment outside Suva, before being handed over to police in the afternoon.

The president of VNUTW, Aseri Manulevu told Legend FM Tabu was taken from his home at 6am on Wednesday. By 6pm Tabu was still in police custody and no official reason could be obtained for his arrest.

Army spokesman Major Neumi Leweni said Tabu had been arrested in a joint military-police operation.

Military commander and interim Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama told reporters today the decision to arrest people is made by officers in the “operations room up at the camp (QEB) … if they think (a comment) is incitement.”

FICTU general secretary Attar Singh condemned the move saying: “To arrest him on the eve of the strike does not look good at all. It sends the wrong signal.”

Tabu’s continued detention has not dampened the unions’ spirits with the three remaining affiliates of FICTU launching their strike action from the beginning of the workday tomorrow.

VNUTW president Manulevu said: “This withdrawal of labour will continue until our demands are met.”

The walkout tomorrow will lend momentum to the strike by the Fiji Nursing Association (FNA), also a FICTU affiliate, which entered its eighth day today.

FNA general secretary Kuini Lutua said today they were considering asking trainee nurses who are union members to join the strike to protect them from liability claims.

Some 10,369 workers are members of the three unions striking tomorrow. The Public Employees Union has 5500 members; Fiji Teachers Association has 4269 members, while the VNUTW has 600.

Students in their final year of primary education were scheduled to sit the Fiji Eighth Year Examination in mid-August, just before the second term school holiday begins. But the minister responsible for the civil service, Poseci Bune, said if the strike continues the Education Ministry may consider bringing the school holiday forward.

The interim government played down the possible effects of the mass strike with Bainimarama saying that according to official assessments “the bulk of the civil service will be at work”, adding that there were contingency plans ready across the entire service.

His remarks were echoed by Public Service Minister Bune who said: “It’s not a concern to us if we have contingency plans in place. We are confident that we can continue.”

Under Fiji’s industrial dispute laws, the Labour Minister can order striking unions to compulsory arbitration. But Bernadette Rounds-Ganilau, the interim Labour Minister, said today she had been directed by Bainimarama to hold off on ordering the FNA to arbitration.

“I know I have let a lot of people down with the order that I am to invoke” but she said Bainimarama had told her to wait while the “sustainability of the strike” is assessed.

In a press conference Bainimarama said: “As long as (government) services are being provided, there will be no arbitration.”

He also labelled the unions’ action as politically motivated. “I think they want to disrupt services to a point that the government gives in. But that’s not going to happen.”

This is the first time strikes have occurred while a post-coup regime was in place. Fiji’s fourth coup in December 2000, led by Bainimarama, saw the ousting of the Laisenia Qarase government.

In March, the regime imposed a five percent across-the-board pay cut on civil servants, reduced the retirement age to 55 and cancelled an agreement with public sector unions made by Qarase’s government last year.