The establishment of the 2013 Constitution by Voreqe Bainimarama’s government provided the basis for the 2014 elections and Fiji’s return to a parliamentary system after eight long years. In 2018, the first of two years reviewed here, Fiji was poised for its second national elections, planned for the second half of the year. However, the elections were not the sole political development of the year, as union and parliamentary issues also emerged. The interplay of these issues has and continues to be a consequence of Fiji’s coup culture.
The year began with Air Terminal Services (Fiji) (ats) workers staging an organized march through Nadi town on 13 January after having been locked out of work in December 2017. Management had accused them of attending an illegal meeting to discuss their working conditions and other matters. The march gathered over a thousand people, with support from civil society groups, politicians, and concerned citizens (Yaya 2018). The employees returned to work on 22 January after the Employment Relations Tribunal resolved the issue (rnz, 22 Jan 2018), settling on management returning the workers to their jobs and paying them for the duration of the lockout. However, Fiji Trades Union Congress National Secretary Felix Anthony was later interrogated and investigated for a speech he made during the march, which the police claimed had been inciting and a threat to public order (Ravulo 2018a). The police then denied a permit for a similar march that was planned for Suva in February, on the grounds that Anthony, as a union representative, was still under investigation (Lacanivalu 2018). Anthony was subsequently cleared of the investigation by Director of Public Prosecutions Christopher Pryde, who saw no basis for the claims (Ravulo 2018a). Many viewed the investigation as yet another example of routine intimidation and threats by the government toward unions and their representatives.
Beneath the surface of the ats saga were a number of intersecting political and socioeconomic issues. Chief among these was the ongoing suppression of unions and unionism in general. Union groups have lamented the detainment and ill-treatment of unions and union representatives that occurred at the height of the 2006 coup and culminated in [End Page 554] the highly controversial decrees of 2011—namely, the Public Service (Amendment) Decree, the Employment Relations (Amendment) Decree, and the Essential National Industries (Employment) Decree (Apted and Barnes 2015). In 2015, these decrees were amended under the Employment Relations Promulgation (Amendment) Act, which Parliament passed in response to pressure from the International Labour Organisation. The 2015 amendment was supposed to resolve the limitations placed on unions in order to avoid possible trade sanctions. However, the continued approach of intimidation and blatant disregard for workers’ grievances remained. This was evidenced by the government’s indifferent and uncompromising approach to the ats workers’ plight. In addition, the controversy was heightened by the fact that ats’s recently appointed chairman of the board, Riyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, is the brother of the ruling government’s most polarizing minister—Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. Riyaz Sayed-Khaiyum is also the ceo of Fiji Broadcasting Corporation (fbc), which as a media outlet covered the matter but did so in a way that painted the board, and especially its chairman, in a positive light (Naikaso 2017). From the outset, the ats board’s methods were viewed as part of the government’s heavy-handed approach.
Among the workers’ claims was the issue of the cost of living, given their eleven-year wage freeze (rnz, 15 Jan 2018). This issue has been an ongoing concern, particularly for Fiji’s working class, as Fiji’s cost of living has risen by 40 percent since 2009. What has compounded this is the fact that Fiji’s minimum wage remains low at f$2.68, with wage rates across different sectors remaining marginal at best (Robertson 2017; f$1.00 is equivalent to around us$0.45). At the same time, the government has argued that Fiji’s economic growth has been unprecedented in recent years, with an estimated average growth rate of 4 percent (Ross 2017; Sayed-Khaiyum 2018).
The ats workers saga galvanized opposition parties, who rallied behind the workers...