Two trade unionists have been arrested in Fiji, leading to further allegations the coup-installed military government is trying to destroy the nation’s union movement.
The interim government has recently introduced new laws restricting union rights in strategic industries, and has announced that public servants will no longer have their union dues automatically deducted from wages.
Unions in Fiji have become unpopular with the government of Commodore Frank Bainimarama because they have been seeking support from the international union movement against what they see as an assault on workers rights.
In the latest incident, Fiji Trades Union Congress President Daniel Urai and an FTUC staffer, Dinesh Gounder, were arrested and charged in the Nadi Magistrates Court with unlawful assembly.
FTUC General Secretary Felix Anthony has told Pacific Beat the men were simply doing their job and didn’t need to apply for a government permit to assemble.
“Normally if you had a public meeting you’d have to apply for a permit [but] this was not a public meeting,” he said.
“[Mr Urai] was on his routine visit to [a] resort to deal with some disciplinary measures that members had. We don’t believe that this called for any added permit whatsoever.
“This is absolutely unjustified and this is just another attempt by the authorities to intimidate unions, and attempt to try and ensure that there is absolutely no union activity whatsoever.”
Mr Anthony says it is “almost impossible” for unions to operate freely in Fiji at present.
“From what we are told there will be no permits issued for any meetings for trade unions, so I think this really amounts to that trade unions cannot operate freely in Fiji anymore.
“This intimidation included that [Mr Urai] be detained for the entire night and for the better part of today just to be charged under the Public Emergency Regulation.
“We don’t believe that these kind of actions are necessary. If there are issues the police ought to have just simply taken a statement and could have laid their charges at any point of time, you don’t need to detain people.”
But the Permanent Secretary of Fiji’s Ministry of Information, Sharon Smith-Johns, says the arrest of the two men is a simple case of breaking the law, and the government is not singling unions out for special attention.
“The permit is required under the PER,” she said.
“Now they’re very aware of this that they do need the permit to hold these meetings. So that was why they were brought in for questioning.”
Ms Smith-Johns denied the arrests were a punishment for Fiji’s unions seeking international support in their battle against the new laws.
“It’s certainly no punishment. I mean the law is the law. We’re following the law.”