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Money problems break up struggling family

Avinesh Gopal
Monday, February 17, 2014

IT was an event that changed the lives of hundreds of people almost 23 years ago. The decision to go on strike did not pay off for about 420 workers at the Vatukoula gold mines.

They had expected a solution to be found for their grievances soon after the strike but they were wrong.

As a result, the lives of the goldminers and their families were shattered.

It resulted in little or no food at all in homes, families breaking up, social problems and the death of 81 striking miners over the years.

The events after the strike also resulted in an innocent bailiff losing his life while performing his duty at the mines.

We will bring you the stories of the striking miners, the widows of miners who have died and the bailiff.

Today, we bring you the story of a striking miner and the events that led to the break-up of his family.

SHE decided to leave him and their three children - and he did not stop her. Because "it was her right" to do what she wanted.

And the main reason for her leaving was financial problems. But her departure did not solve problems for her husband and children. It was something that affected them psychologically.

The separation in Sikeli Natuku's family happened at a time when other striking miners' families were trying their best to stay together as a unit despite the odds.

One of their children, who was in Form Five at that time, dropped out of school because of the psychological effects. However, as time passed, they managed to get their lives together without the woman of the house, although putting food on the table was always a struggle.

The problems in Mr Natuku's life started when he joined his colleagues who walked off their jobs at the Vatukoula gold mines on February 27, 1991. His life changed on that day.

Originally from Vanuakula in Nasau, Rakiraki, Mr Natuku decided to move to Vatukoula with his wife and two children in 1979.

Mr Natuku, now 64, got a job with a contractor at the mines in 1982 and worked underground, earning $1.56 an hour.

Like other miners then, Mr Natuku also survived on a loan or credit cycle, which left with nothing much in his pay packet during pay days.

He had three children when he and his colleagues decided to go on strike in protest over several issues they were unhappy with.

On May 8 and May 10, 1991, The Fiji Times reported a protest march, and verbal confrontation between the miners and police as the strike continued. Mr Natuku was part of this. He was also injured in the events after the strike.

While the strike is technically still on - 23 years after workers worked off their jobs - he has revealed for the first time what he went through as a result of it and how his wife left him and their children.

"I had three children and was working underground for a contractor and earning $1.56 an hour, which was not enough for the risky job," he said in an interview.

"Whatever I earned every week went into paying credit for groceries bought from a company-run supermarket and I used to be left with only $5 or $6 in my hand.

"Like my colleagues, my life also ran on credit and it was a very big struggle for all of us even before the strike.

"The struggles worsened when we went on strike and putting food on the table was really very hard."

Mr Natuku had two children in primary school and the third was an infant when he went on strike on February 27, 1991.

"We managed to survive through the first year of the strike through food rations from the FTUC and other groups," he said.

"But as we entered the second year of the strike, things started worsening in every striking miner's home, including mine.

"Putting food on the table was a big problem and most of the time we had only one meal a day."

Mr Natuku said there was some financial relief when he started harvesting sugar cane in the Tavua area.

He said other miners and their wives also got involved in cane harvesting through arrangements between the farmers and the National Farmers Union.

"I harvested cane and earned money but there were still problems in my house because of finance.

"In 2001, my wife left me and my three children who were in Form Five, Class Eight and Class Two.

"We survived mostly on cassava and lemon leaf tea after the strike and I used to pay for my children's education from my FNPF savings.

"Our relationship before the strike was very good although I earned little. But problems started after the strike and she used to complain about finance," he claimed.

Mr Natuku said his wife told him in 2001 that she was leaving him and their three children.

When asked why he didn't stop her, he replied, "I didn't because it was her right to make her own decision. I wasn't working when she left."

He started looking after his children - his son who was in Form Five dropped out of school.

"When I asked him what's wrong, he told me he was psychologically disturbed from the day his mother left us and he couldn't concentrate on his studies. He started planting cassava."

Mr Natuku said he moved to Suva in search of work in 2006 to educate his other two children, one of whom was in high school then.

His eldest son and daughter are now married while the younger son lives with him in Vatukoula.

"I met up with my wife in Vatukoula in 2012 when she came from Vanua Levu. I told her to forget about the past and come back.

"I told her that our eldest son has two children, the daughter has a child and we are grandparents now and we should be together for them.

"But she didn't say anything and I haven't met her since then," said Mr Natuku, adding his wife's silence gave him the answer.

NEXT WEEK:

Tears of the goldminers' widows.


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