Firefighters’ freedom of association undermined in Fiji: Communities placed at risk

The government of Fiji initiated a series of unprecedented attacks to take away firefighters’ right to freedom of association. These developments are not only a concern regarding the rights of fire fighters to join an independent union, but also for their occupational safety and the safety of the wider community.

Firefighters in Fiji are covered by the free and independent Fiji Public Service Association (FPSA), a union covering a range of government workers.  However earlier this year the National Fire Authority (NFA), a government statutory body responsible for the fire services, began setting up an “in-house” union, replete with managers and volunteer fire fighters. It is alleged that the Chief Fire Officer is the main recruiter for the “in-house” union and that these actions are authorised by the Executive Chairman.

Following the constitutional crisis in 2009 unions lost a number of rights, including the ability to collect union fees, the ability to bargain wages and conditions and the ability to call a meeting with members without a permit.  The democratic elections in 2014 were seen as an opportunity to re-build democracy within the country and following a period of scrutiny sections of the law restricting unions were repealed, giving unions the opportunity to re-build.

However, recent events begin to cast doubt over the Fijian Government’s intentions.  Many public sector workers, like nurses, teachers, core public service members and fire fighters, have gone years without a pay rise.  The FPSA has sought to commence bargaining a 15% pay rise for fire fighters, many of whom are employed as casuals, back-dated to the beginning of 2016.

Rather than enter into negotiations it appears that some firefighters have been coerced into joining the Fire Service Union (FSU), an “in-house” union established and run under the control of the employer which breaches the Employment Relation Promulgation.  Individual fire fighters have said that they were offered higher wages and the promise of permanent employment if they signed over to the FSU.  Those that are in acting positions have been advised that they will only be confirmed in their appointments if they joined the in-house union.

The FPSA has sought the intervention of the Employment Relation Tribunal into the proceedings, but the efforts of the FPSA are being hampered.  A representative from the Registrar of Trade Unions failed to turn up to a hearing called by the Employment Relations Tribunal resulting in an order being made that the Registrar make available the names of the office bearers of the FSU “in-house” union, that the FPSA has the right to appeal the registration of the FSU and that $400 be paid to the FPSA as costs for the non-appearance.  This ruling has been objected to by the Solicitor General’s office on behalf of the Registrar of Trade Unions. 

Other potential anomalies include the allegation that the “in-house” FSU has been having “union” dues deducted from workers’ pay over the last eight months, despite the leadership having not being elected and the union not being registered.  If true this is clearly contrary to the law. Despite the Ministry of Employment, Productivity & Industrial Relations being informed no action has been taken by the Registrar of Trade Unions who is also the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Employment, Productivity & Industrial Relations.

This is in stark contrast to, earlier in the year, when the NFA withheld the “check-off” (the collection of union dues) for members of the FPSA while all other statutory authorities and government entities restored the “check-off”.  In fact the check-off was only reinstated following complaints and the intervention of the Minister of Local Government under which the portfolio the NFA is listed.

On the face of it there is a clear intent to undermine the ability of the FPSA to represent its members and to starve it of funds whilst a statutory authority sets up its own union promising to potential members what it is denying to the members of the FPSA.

This is in contravention of ILO Conventions 87 and 98, Freedom of Association and the right to collective bargaining.  Earlier this year, PSI addressed the ILO office to denounce these acts and requested the the Fijian Government to:

  • Refrain from any interference which would restrict the rights provided for in the ILO Conventions or impede their lawful exercise;
  • Refrain from according a more favourable or unfavourable treatment to any given organization as compared with others, aimed at influencing the choice of workers as to the organization which they intend to join;
  • Refrain from taking any disciplinary action against fire fighters who have exercised their democratic rights under the ILO conventions;
  • Intervene immediately by directing the NFA to cease its creation of an “in-house” union;
  • Revert individual fire fighters back to their collective agreement and to investigate any acts of intimidation.

Coupled with recent reports that a trade unionist, civil society representatives and political figures were detained for having met without a permit and allegations of “utterances” against the government, these developments are alarming.  It draws into question Fiji’s intent to continue its path toward an open and free democracy.

The government statutory authorities, and government commercial companies under the Public Enterprise Ministry are very hesitant to enter into collective bargaining with unions, with few exceptions. The Fiji Water Authority simply refuses to even communicate with unions.  The FPSA has submitted seven Collective Agreements with government entities however only two (2) have responded resulting in disputes being registered for the rest. Given the volume of cases before the Arbitration Court it could be years before these cases are heard, leaving workers without much needed pay rises.

Whilst the freedom of association is important to all workers, for fire fighters it becomes a question of workplace safety and the safety of their communities.  At a meeting of PSI affiliated fire fighters in Manila in 2015 it was clear that the right to belong to an independent union improved the rights and conditions for fire fighters. Our communities rely on well-trained and well-equipped fire fighters.  For this to occur all public sector workers need to be able to speak up about deficiencies within their services without fear of retribution from the employer.  When your employer runs your union this freedom is removed.

PSI, therefore calls on the Fijian Government to intervene and put an end to the “in house” FSU formation, to enter into good faith bargaining with the FPSA and to continue its undertakings to move towards a more open and democratic society.  In the matter of the fire fighters’ freedom of association rights, the long-term safety of the Fijian community relies upon it.