Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Workers rights must be respected

The Government should be forewarned that messing with the workers of this country would not serve its best interests. The Interim Government’s planned cost-cutting measures do not augur well for civil servants. Interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry has identified two areas as requiring immediate budgetary measures: “One is wages and salaries, second is administrative costs on the public service,” he said. Interim Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainmarama had proposed a 5 per cent pay reduction for civil servants, a reduction in retirement age from 60 to 55 years and the deferral of provisions relating to a pay increase as laid out in the Partnership Agreement with the unions. The Interim Government, like the previous government, is concerned with the size and cost of the civil service Commodore Bainimarama announced urgent measures in relation to containing the size of the public service and its associated expenditure. Ousted Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase had said in his reply to the 2007 Budget debate that previous efforts to revitalise and reorganise the service had faltered. It had been difficult to overcome the old ways and implant a fresh spirit and principles based on an absolute commitment to higher performance and better results.
The Qarase government had requested the Public Service Commission to set up a department dedicated to coordinating and overseeing reform. Prime Minister Qarase had said: “Expenditure is to be reduced by a number of measures. These include the realignment and right-sizing of organisational structures and a reduction in overall staff; removal of overlapping functions; the introduction, in consultation with the unions, of a single integrated system for annual pay and performance review; the rationalisation and divestment of unused and obsolete capital infrastructure; and the rationalisation of the government vehicle fleet. “We expect a reduction in the cost of the service and operating budget and a corresponding increase in capital investment and improved accountability,” Mr Qarase said. More recently, the Interim Prime Minister said: “Government simply cannot afford to support the public service in its current state. Most importantly, responsive and necessary decisions have to be made.” Commodore Bainimarama said his Government made the early decision of reducing value added tax (VAT) by 2.5 per cent, which would reduce the impact of the reduction in wages and salaries.
A five per cent reduction in civil service pay would result in savings of about $30 million.
This figure will increase when Government also reduces allowances, which are pegged to salaries. The operation of the Interim Cabinet with 16 Ministers will save at least $2 million annually as a result of the reduction in Cabinet-size and in allowances such as travel and communications and the non-receipt of some ministerial allowances. The Interim ministers receive 37 per cent less in basic salary compared with ministers in the Qarase government. Commodore Bainimarama confirmed he was not receiving a salary as the prime minister, but continued to receive his pay only as the Commander of the RFMF. Savings of about $2 million have also been established through the reversion of chief executive officers to permanent secretary positions. The present operating cost of the civil service is 80 per cent of the Government’s overall budget. An ideal scenario would be 60 to 70 per cent. The biggest component of the operating cost is that of personnel, which averages about 50 per cent for the period 2002 to 2007. In 2005, personnel costs were about $525 million. This was an increase of 1.2 per cent of the 2004 costs due to a 2 per cent bonus and 3 per cent COLA for public servants. Last year’s (2006) personnel costs are expected to be about $594 million, an increase of 13.2 per cent over the 2005 payment.
This increase was due to a two per cent across the board merit payment and a four per cent Industrial Relations Framework (IRF) payment to public servants. It is good the Interim Prime Minister has clearly given figures to substantiate the government’s stand. However, the workers have been left feeling they are victims of the military takeover on December 5, 2006. They are not happy with the plan by the Government specifically aimed at reviving the financial and economic crisis the nation now faces. They say there are other ways to resolve the problems. Our workers in Fiji, including those in the civil service, are members of the trade unions that are all affiliated to the global body known as the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). The ITUC represents 168 million workers through its 306 affiliated organisations in 154 countries and territories. The international trade union movement is adapting in order to remain a key player in an economic climate that is creating more losers than winners. The imbalances of economic globalisation are having a devastating effect on millions of workers. Sending work offshore, abuse of workers’ rights and increasing poverty are all examples of the negative impact of these developments. According to Maika Namudu, general secretary of the Fijian Teachers Association, the creation of the ITUC will solidify the trade union movement’s capacity at the national and international levels.
The FTA and the Fiji Teachers Union are affiliates of the Education International (EI). EI is the global union federation of teachers, which represent over 30 million members in 162 countries. EI is an affiliate of ITUC. In January this year, the Global Unions Council (GUC) was formed and this represents millions of workers round the globe. EI has condemned the Fiji coup and surely the council is fully aware of what is happening in Fiji as the EI general secretary, Fred van Leeuwen, is the chairman of the council. As workers in Fiji are members of this global workers’ family, there must be greater transparency and democracy in the decision-making processes. The Interim Government must recognise the primacy of human rights over financial, commercial or economic regulations. Trade union rights are a key part of human rights at work. The violation of trade union rights, which is still widespread, is a source of unfair competition in the global economy and needs to be prevented on economic as well as human rights grounds: repression anywhere constitutes a threat to liberty everywhere. I know the Interim Government is now faced with a crisis and it has arrived at a hard decision. A decision it cannot withdraw. This is confirmed by the Interim Prime Minister’s plea to the workers:
``I also urge all public servants to fully accept these measures, which we are implementing for this interim period. Your nation needs your goodwill so that we are able to steady this ship and move her to greater horizons.“It is my heartfelt plea to the public sector unions, the civil servants and the nation as a whole to fully rally their support behind us in our efforts to build a more prosperous, united and progressive Fiji.” The financial and economic crisis we are now facing has been created by the military takeover of a democratically elected government to carry out a clean-up campaign. It is a very costly campaign as we are all now feeling the pinch. The Government should be mindful of the fact that the GUC is a powerful organisation that will act in defence of workers whose rights are being denied. Rather than make decisions that ride roughshod over Fiji’s workers, the Interim Government should continue negotiations with the unions. The nation as a whole will suffer if the Government does otherwise.

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