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Miners hopeful of better days ahead

Avinesh Gopal
Monday, March 10, 2014

IT was February 27, 1991 when hundreds of workers at the Vatukoula goldmines walked off their jobs in protest over work-related issues.

Other miners joined their colleagues in the days that followed, thinking that an early solution would be found to their grievances.

But the 420 members of the Fiji Mine Workers Union who went on strike were wrong, as they are still waiting for a solution today.

The industrial action by the goldminers resulted in them and their families suffering for the past 23 years, with many still having difficulty in putting food on their tables.

From day one of the strike until today, 81 of the miners who put their tools down with their colleagues have died.

Apart from the sufferings of the goldminers and their families, the widow of a court sheriff who died during a riot at the mines one year after the strike is also facing hard times financially.

However, there are a few goldminers who are still on strike but they may have made a future for their children and themselves.

Today, as we wrap-up the series on the tears of the goldminers, their widows and family members, we bring you the success story of a miner on strike.

LIKE his colleagues, he also decided to go on strike 23 years ago in protest against what they claimed were improper working conditions and unjust wages.

It was a major decision that he had to take, considering he had five children at that time and all were attending primary school.

But union solidarity and the fight against what they believed was not right made Joseva Sadreu join his colleagues.

The decision to go on strike changed his life and later made him realise how to tackle the problem at hand for the betterment of his family.

On February 28, 1991 and in the days that followed, this newspaper reported of the strike and whatever that transpired at the mines.

Mr Sadreu, 56, told The Fiji Times that the most struggling years of his life were from 1992 to 1995, as the miners on strike were given food rations in the first year of the strike by some organisations.

"Like with other miners on strike, problems started in the second year and there were times when there wasn't any food in my home. We had to fast from morning to afternoon," he said.

"I had five children when I went on strike and all of them were in primary school and like other children, they needed food too to go to school.

"Since there was no source of income, I went to the rivers nearby to catch fish at night. I used to sell a bundle of fish for $10 while the rest of the catch was consumed by the family.

"I later started selling cigarettes and yaqona from home to ensure there was some money coming in for the family's welfare."

Mr Sadreu then started harvesting sugar cane in the Tavua area after arrangements were made between the National Farmers Union general secretary Mahendra Chaudhry and the farmers.

Like him, other miners who were on strike started harvesting sugar cane while their wives helped in loading it on the trucks.

The verbal arrangement made by the NFU and FLP leader with the farmers still stands today and some miners on strike continue to harvest sugar cane every year.

While harvesting sugar cane and doing other odd jobs to earn money, Mr Sadreu also planted vegetables which he sold from home.

But since whatever he earned was not enough to meet his children's educational expenses, he was forced to withdraw his FNPF savings for this purpose.

"I couldn't go to any functions in the village when I was on strike because there was no money for these things. I was already struggling to put food on the table and educate my children.

"The majority of the money I had in my FNPF savings was used to pay for my children's education right up to secondary school."

Mr Sadreu said after going on strike and struggling in the first few years to buy food and educate his children, he decided to make a better future for his five children.

His eldest daughter is a teacher at Tavua District School, the second child a teacher on Koro Island, a son is working in Italy after getting educated in England, another son works at a hotel on the Coral Coast and the fifth child is a second year nursing student.

"I spent $24,000 from my FNPF to educate all my children. The teacher at Koro Island was the only one to get a Fijian Affairs Board scholarship while I educated the others myself.

"When I retired last year, there was nothing much left in my FNPF savings as I had withdrawn most of the money for my children's education."

Mr Sadreu later moved to Lautoka where he set up a fishing business that has kept him going, financially. He owns a boat and has some fishermen working for him, a business he plans to expand in the near future.

His wife Makalesi Sadreu was diagnosed with intestinal cancer in 2011 and she succumbed to the disease last year.

Asked what he thought of his life now after going on strike, he replied, "I'm happy now because I've played my role as a father.

"If I die, then I know that my children are OK to survive on their own as they have good jobs and only the youngest one is completing her nursing studies. I have my own house in Lautoka."

Mr Sadreu said he never asked his children for financial assistance. He said his children had his bank account number and they deposited money into the account whenever they wanted to.

In 1995, he was elected the Fiji Mine Workers Union president and since then, he is being unanimously elected to the position.

Considering that the miners are on strike for the past 23 years, Mr Sadreu said he wanted to find a solution for their grievances.

"Governments have come and gone but a permanent solution is yet to be found for the miners who are still on strike from February 1991," said Mr Sadreu.

While the trade unionist has been able to secure a good future for his children, there are other parents who are still struggling on their own in Vatukoula.

The financial situation in homes after the strike also resulted in some families breaking up with no chances of the couples reuniting.

And while the striking miners and their families are struggling to this day, the widow of court sheriff Mani Lal is also facing financial problems.

Lal's widow Lila Wati, 62, of Wailailai in Ba told this newspaper she was yet to receive compensation for her husband's death.

It was assumed that Lal died after being hit by a stone during a riot at the goldmines on February 4, 1992 when he went to serve eviction notices.

A goldminer on strike was charged with Lal's murder but he was acquitted by the High Court in Lautoka, which found that Lal was not stoned to death.

The majority of the goldminers on strike have been struggling to survive for the past 23 years and their struggles are expected to continue until a permanent solution to their problem is found.

Despite the lapse of 23 years, the miners on strike and their families are still hopeful of seeing better days ahead.

In the meantime, they continue to live in solidarity near the Vatukoula goldmines, supporting one another with whatever little food they may have. They claim the strike is still on.

NEXT WEEK: The Christmas trip that went wrong in 1971.

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