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Labour rights and wrongs

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

CHILD labour, strike threats and trade unions have been making the news

lately. The Director of the International Labour Organisation's Office in the South Pacific, ABU ZAKARIA talks to The Fiji Times about child labour and child prostitution, the local trade union movement and labour conditions in Fiji.

Times: According to existing reports, how many children fall under the child labour category?

Zakaria: We are in the process of finalising a document and once it is done we will undertake on the extent and the type of child labour that exists.

Until such time, we do not have concrete statistics but some of the worst forms of child labour exists here like child prostitution.

In the child committee meeting, even the police force also recognised that there are some child prostitutes and sometimes children are seen to be carrying drugs.

It has also been reported that children are used for pornographic purposes, so these are the worst forms of child labour and sometimes you hear of reports that these sort of things exist. There are some cases in Fiji.

Times: Why is it difficult to clamp down on child labour here?

Zakaria: There are many factors. Number one is poverty but there are other reasons like family break-ups and people in social conflicts or civil unrest.

When these sorts of things happen, families fall into traps and the children become the victims.

Times: What do you think of the case where the father allows his 11-year-old son to work?

Zakaria: According to ILO definition, any work which jeopardises the development of the development of children and stops them from going to school falls within the definition of child labour but there could be an argument here because the father says his son is not doing well in school, so he is developing and training him for a career.

There is a question of argument here if someone wants to put their child to learn in a training institution how to repair a car, no one will say it is child labour.

But the man has put the child in his own business, so therefore the question arises.

If the training and education is for the development of the child and it is not a job but training, then it has a completely different connotation.

If the work was to stop the child from the development of his skills or to become a full grown citizen, then it is definitely child labour.

Times: What does the law say about child labour in Fiji?

Zakaria: Fiji's new Employment Relations Bill makes provisions of minimum age, which is 16, and this is compliant with ILO Conventions. It has also made provisions for the worst form of child labour where the minimum age is 18 and that is also compliant with ILO Conventions.

In light work, Fiji's regulation says that the work but more specifically very light work which does not hamper the health or education of children the age limit is a little bit lower than 16.

Times: How many conventions does ILO have that Fiji might want to ratify?

Zakaria: Last year we observed 30 years in the Pacific and we requested our constituents meaning the government and workers' organisations to identify the convention they would like to ratify. Fiji has identified eight more conventions to be ratified and they have signed the letter of intent to ratify those conventions.

Times: What do you think of the standard of trade unions in Fiji?

Zakaria: The unions are quite organised in their way but the most important part of the trade union movement is not only organising of workers but there are many challenges that face the trade unions, particularly in terms of globalisation.

There are a lot of challenges coming into small island economies, like free trade. In free trade, how do you protect the workers' rights in terms of minimum wages, in terms of working hours, working conditions, in terms of fostering or promoting distant employment and income?

These sort of issues are long-term issues. You cannot achieve those things overnight but the trade unions should take these sort of issues on board and pursue them for the wellbeing of the members. It's not that they are not doing it, they are but they are constantly under pressure to face these issues and not only these issues.

Such issues are not always coming from within the country but a lot of the factors come from outside.

Times: We have two trade union governing bodies in Fiji the Fiji Islands Congress of Trades Unions and the Fiji Confederation of Public Sector Unions. Does that make it difficult for workers to bargain?

Zakaria: According to an ILO convention, every worker has the right to choose or join any association.

From that perspective there is nothing wrong but in a small economy like Fiji where the membership is small, it is like any other situation and if you split, then it weakens your bargaining capacity.

From that point of view that division makes the whole movement weaker, particularly when they have different points of views.

Times: Do you think the two bodies should unite?

Zakaria: It would have to be their decision on whether they should unite. It is their prerogative and right but they should look at the bigger picture of the workers' improvement and decide what they should do.

Times: How is ILO contributing to Fiji's return to democracy?

Zakaria: ILO tries to establish the rights at work. Every person has a voice, every person has a right to determine the sort of work or career they would like to pursue, every worker should be free from child labour, every person should have access to decent employment or income and for that matter the ILO tries to help the country achieve high level of skills and at the same time good living and work conditions.

Times: Thursday was International Women's Day. What is ILO's view on discrimination against women in the workplace?

Zakaria: We do not have such a report (on discrimination against women) but we undertook a study on discrimination, the Convention on Discrimination by ILO.

A few issues were raised. In terms of legislation there is no discrimination in Fiji between men and women but in practice there are some trends.

Let's say women are not taking on all occupations, like you do not see a lot of women welders but it's more of a cultural thing that people choose occupations and they do make some sort of distinction between men and women.

But one of the things ILO has been doing is that to break this notion, we invite young men and women to take part in our employment generating initiatives.

I was pleasantly surprised that a few young women participated in block laying and welding training courses. This are some ways of breaking the notion that these type of trades are meant for men.

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