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Why being a unionist in Fiji will put you in jail

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By Andrew Casey

Asia/Pacific Editor for LabourStart

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

THE Fiji military regime uses a highly compromised judicial system to persecute and prosecute union leaders and members who dare to challenge their stranglehold on the island nation.

A workplace stoppage in the lead up to New Year’s Eve at the huge Sheraton Starwood Resorts in Fiji  – which involved more than 400 staff – has been hammered by the regime. The Fiji Trades Union Congress has attacked the latest heavy-handed action of the regime headed by Commodore Frank Bainimarama since the 2006 coup.

Across the globe, hotel unions are protesting to both the Sheraton Starwood resort chain management and the Pacific Island’s military leadership.

The global hotel workers union, the IUF, has launched an urgent action email campaign targeting Starwood management. It is expected to be the first of several global campaigns aimed at either the Fiji military regime or the Starwood Sheraton chain.

Rights at risk, says ITUC

Fiji is already listed by the International Trade Union Confederation as among seven countries ‘at risk’ for trade unionists and trade union rights.

Regime leaders did not expect such an ‘uprising’ by a normally compliant workforce just before the 2013 New Year’s Eve celebrations – a key moment for Fiji’s economically important hospitality industry.

Hours after the stoppage had actually ended the regime’s Labour Minister declared the strike illegal. 

Then the regime retaliated on 10 January.


Daniel Urai

 

 

 

 

 

 
Fijian union leader Daniel Urai.


They dragged a leading Fijian unionist, the President of the Fiji TUC and leader of the island nation’s hotel union, Daniel Urai, before a magistrate and – along with five others – charged them all for stirring up trouble in the workplace by leading an illegal strike.

Police are interviewing more Sheraton workers and are darkly threatening to bring more people before the courts over the ‘illegal’strike – but this is seen as a strategy to undermine the union organisation in the workplace.

The latest charges came just days before a scheduled hotel union report back meeting – which threatened further workplace disruption – by Sheraton workers angry that a range of their benefits had been cut by management without any consultation.

After the charges were laid the magistrates’ court conditionally released on bail Daniel Urai and the five other union activists. They are to report regularly to the local police station and they have been banned from leaving the country. 

Charges like a Sword of Damocles for Urai

This is not the first time the 54-year-old Urai has been taken to court. He already faces treason and sedition charges – first laid against him more than two years ago – for allegedly urging political violence at a union meeting.

Over the last three years each time the treason charge is brought to court the Fiji prosecutors seek, and get from the magistrate, an adjournment.

It is like a Sword of Damocles hanging over the FTUC President’s head.

Police have also consistently targeted him by taking him to court for drink driving charges and other seemingly minor infractions.

A complaint judiciary has allowed the development of this popular strategy by regime lawyers.

They have used this strategy not just against Daniel Urai, but other union leaders and activists, to intimidate opponents of the regime by stringing out legal charges ad infinitum.

Seemingly the magistrates are so scared of the military regime they dare not challenge this obvious prosecution game but at the request of the lawyers agree to, again, adjourn the case for a later date.

Continuing intimidation of union voices is inevitable with an election due in September. In a deliberate ploy, the leader of the 2006 coup, Frank Bainimarama, has announced he will step down as head of Fiji’s military at the end of next month so he can stand in the election.

The credibility of the elections as free, democratic and transparent is increasingly being questioned and the regime is not eager to provide space to one of their few, independent, organised critics in Fiji.

Keep up to date with the struggle of Fijian workers and their unions against the military regime on Fiji LabourStart.


Working Life is a forum to share ideas and opinions about work and life, both light-hearted and serious. The opinions presented on Working Life are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent policies or views of the ACTU.

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