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Tears of the goldminers

Avinesh Gopal
Monday, February 10, 2014

HOW will it feel when your little children sit in a corner of the house, hungry, and you cannot provide food for them?

And even if there is food in the house, then it is only enough to feed your wife, children and yourself once a day, and that too only a certain amount.

The hungry look on the face of little children may be unbearable for many people but it was a reality in hundreds of homes in an area more than two decades ago, and to some extent even now.

Such was the situation that children and even adults often went around looking for mangoes and guavas when the fruits were in season, either to fill their stomachs or to earn money.

Although survival was a struggle for the families, their faith in the Lord Almighty kept them going and away from any criminal activities to put food on the table.

Those who were brought up in that struggling situation with limited or no food are adults now and they have a better understanding of what struggle means and what life is.

It is the story of the striking workers of the Vatukoula gold mines who put their tools down on February 27, 1991, in protest against several issues. The strike is still on.

There are also stories of families breaking up after the strike, some of the striking workers dying and some people earning money through other means over the years.

One of the striking workers whose life was turned upside down is Hansy Peters, now the general secretary of the Fiji Mine Workers Union.

Mr Peters, 67, who was in charge at one of the shafts at the mine, was at work on February 27, 1991, when his colleagues from another shaft walked off their jobs.

He and other colleagues joined the strike three days later after telling their shift manager they had to support the strike.

"We knew that we would be victimised if we went on strike. And of the more than 600 union members, 420 went on strike and we all were later terminated by the company," he said.

"Our life after the strike was almost the same as it was like before we went on strike. The cupboards in my house used to be empty even before the strike and the situation worsened after it.

"We were living on credit and whatever we got paid at the end of the week was deducted for the groceries we bought on credit from a company-run supermarket."

Mr Peters' four children were in primary and secondary school at that time and he was the sole breadwinner in the family, earning $1.55 an hour working underground.

He said the Fiji Trades Union Congress provided food rations for six months to the families and there was also support from other trade unions.

"But when the food rations finished, our meals were broken down and we used to have only one meal a day and that was only dinner.

"We had cassava and tea or tea made from lemon leaves for dinner. There was nothing such as breakfast and lunch in my house. The situation was the same in other homes."

Mr Peters said during the early days of their struggle, women used to go to the rivers and creeks far from Vatukoula to look for fish, prawns and even eels.

He said Fr Rathburn from the Catholic Church also assisted the striking miners with basic food items after hearing about their struggles.

"As far as my family is concerned, we went through a lot of hardships as there were days when there was no food in the house, even before the strike.

"When other families were having nice meals on Sunday, my wife and children just lay in the house and waited for the night so that they could eat.

"There was nothing for lunch. If we ate breakfast or lunch, then we wouldn't have had anything to eat for dinner. We had to ration whatever food we had."

Mr Peters said his and other families' meals then were mostly cassava and tea. He said most of the striking workers had planted cassava, so they shared it with others.

"It was not easy for my children at the very beginning to be without breakfast and lunch day in, day out. I explained the situation to them and I'm happy they understood and struggled with me."

He was also charged by the police and taken to court for his involvement in the strike which was declared illegal by the authorities. But he and his colleagues were later acquitted by the court.

On March 26, 1991, The Fiji Times ran a story on Mr Peters and his two workmates being acquitted by the High Court in Lautoka of the strike related charges.

"We had started feeling the brunt of the strike after one year when Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry came to our assistance in 1992," said Mr Peters.

"Since he's also the National Farmers Union general secretary, he made verbal arrangements with canefarmers in the Tavua area to provide work to the striking workers.

"Some of the striking workers started harvesting cane and women were involved in loading the trucks, and we are very grateful to Mr Chaudhry.

"His verbal arrangement with the farmers to provide work to the striking miners still exists today, as some of the striking workers and their wives are working in the cane farms and surviving."

Mr Peters was elected the FMWU's general secretary to replace the vibrant Kavekini Navuso who died in 2009.

He lives in Suva now to make things easier in finding a solution to their plight.

"For the record, 81 of the striking workers have died since the day they walked off their jobs and several families have broken up because of financial problems," he said.

"My children have grown up and they are working now but they know through what struggles they were brought up and they have a better understanding of life.

"But the struggles are still continuing for many of the striking miners and their families who still live near Vatukoula. We are praying for someone to come and solve our problems."

Mr Peters said the striking miners and their families believe there is only one person who can solve their problems.

* NEXT WEEK: How a striking miner's family broke up.

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