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When greed prevails

Fr Kevin Barr
Tuesday, November 28, 2017

WE recently heard some wonderful news from New Zealand's Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. The national minimum wage in 2017 is $NZ15 ($F21) but by 2020 it will be increased to $NZ20 ($F28). There is hope for the workers.

Wonderful reality

She notes a great principle — the economic growth of the country needs to be shared among the people, not just for the well-off.

Moreover there was a promise that businesses, housing and properties would be restricted from foreign buyers so local people would not miss out.

"We are determined to make it easier for Kiwis to buy their first home so we are stopping foreign speculators buying houses and driving up prices. Kiwis should not be outbid like this."

How wonderful are the principles of truth in promoting justice, love and concern for all your people.

Some years ago when I was chair of the Wages Council, I heard two interesting inputs.

One came from the top employer of a big business. He said: "In discussing wages I want to see all my workers receive a decent, adequate wage which will enable him to have a decent home for his family, proper food for the family, good education costs and health care costs for all the family. Then and only then can I expect him to produce good, adequate work for our industry. Otherwise he will be in poverty." How wonderful!

The second input came from another company. The manager told me they had workers who came late for work and stole from the firm. He decided he would put up the wages for all the workers. He called them and explained his decision. Suddenly the workers were changed. They came on time for work, no stealing and more enthusiasm for the job. They showed greater productivity in all they did. How wonderful!

We know there are many good employers in the business sector who are deeply concerned for their workers and pay wages above those required. However there are also many selfish and greedy individuals who want to increase their profits by every cent possible. Business may be the engine of growth but it is our workers who keep the wheels of the engine turning.

How can you expect workers to be more "productive" unless their basic needs in terms of housing, proper food, education and health care are being met for themselves and their families?

Twenty years ago the UNDP Fiji Poverty Report stated clearly, low wages is one of the major reasons for the high degree of poverty and hardship in Fiji.

Pickett and Wilkinson in their book The Spirit Level — Why Equality is Better for Everyone (2010) describe how so many problems are caused by inequality all around the world — greater are the social and health problems as well as the crime rates and the number of people in prison. Some countries of the world (eg the US) may be materially successful but, despite their affluence, they are failures because they are socially dysfunctional They show how working towards greater equality can address so many social problems and make for a more properly human society (eg Norway, Sweden and Denmark).

Some years ago our government declared: "We have chosen the path of fairness and justice — the path of equal opportunity. … We must have an inclusive Fiji in which no-one is left behind."

This is a very encouraging vision but a lot remains to be done if we are to achieve real social justice and "no-one is left behind" (including our workers), Are we up to the challenges that are necessary for this to happen and make it a wonderful reality in Fiji today?

Challenging reality

In 2008, I was persuaded to accept the position as independent chair of the 10 Wages Councils under the Ministry of Labour and Industrial Relations. It involved 10 Wages Councils involving two employers' representatives, two workers' representatives and two independent representatives who met four times a year to discuss wages increases.

When we began our work there had been no increases in workers' wages for three years. Our first set of wage proposals was due to come into effect on the February 1, 2009.

Without any consultation it was announced that, under pressure from a strong lobby of employers, the Wage Regulation Orders would be differed to July 1, 2009. The second set of wage proposals was then set to come into effect on July 1, 2010 but again was deferred for 10 months until May 1, 2011 and was reduced by 5 per cent.

All this was done without any consultation with the Wages Councils. The work of the Wages Councils was being interfered with by some outspoken employers with Government.

In 2011, there were no meetings of the Wages Councils because of the stubborn determination of the permanent secretary to have a formula which was unacceptable to all parties based on misinterpreted "productivity".

The Wages Councils met in early 2012 and approved a set of wage proposals to come into effect on August 15, 2012. Then again, without any consultation there was an announcement, through the media, that these wage increases had been deferred until October 31 and the Wages Councils would be asked to reconsider them because of objections raised by some influential employers (despite their representation on the Wages Councils).

When I heard the media announcement, I was outraged and considered the lack of proper consultation most unacceptable. It showed no respect for the members of the Wages Councils who had worked so hard to reach consensus (among the employer representatives, worker's representatives and the two independent representatives).

Above all it showed no respect and no concern for the workers, the 60 per cent of those in full-time employment covered by the Wages Councils and who all earned wages below the poverty line.

The recent deferment of the proposed wage increases was the third in three years. In other words every wage proposal made by the Wages Councils had been opposed by a small group of influential employers.

What is worse, Government allowed this greedy and selfish group of employers to get their own way and crush the hopes and dreams of Fijian workers for modest wage increases to assist them cope with the rapidly increasing cost of living.

The Ministry of Labour, through the Wages Councils, is supposed to be protecting workers' interests.

However, others in Government continually allowed a few of their employer friends to influence them to obstruct the established process and called for delays and decreases. This is commonly called "crony capitalism". It seems to allow the influence of a wealthy group to obstruct the democratic process.

Nothing's changed

This has been consistently shown for many years. In his remarkably detailed research report Just Wages in Fiji — Keeping Workers Out of Poverty (2006) Professor Wadan Narsey looked over 30 years of the operations of the Wages Councils and showed how employers had consistently managed to get their own way.

He wrote: "It was clear that most employers' representatives resisted all proposals for wage increases, and they were quite successful in their attempts. The long-term outcome was the severe deterioration in real wage rates and consequently a growth in poverty in the nation." (p77)

Employers would cite "the usual litany of industrial woes, warn of redundancies and unemployment that high wage adjustments would cause and give a lower counter-proposal" (p76). They would plead "inability to pay" or "this is not the right time".

In the mentioned research, Prof Narsey says over the years "stolen wages" (as he terms the refusal to pay an adequate, just wage) have seriously benefited employers but also seriously disadvantaged thousands of workers in Fiji whose quality of life has deteriorated.

Prof Narsey claims in the 30 years since Independence, more than $F1 billion Fijian dollars has been transferred from workers' wages to employers' profits mainly because the business lobby was exceedingly influential in the Wages Councils. There is an unbelievable degree of exploitation of workers in Fiji.

Nothing has changed and the same old scene gets played out year by year. The root cause of it all is greed and self-interest of a small lobby of employers who want to get their own way and pretend it is in the national interest. Moreover, successive governments have allowed this to happen.

Some beautiful words have been spoken about concern for all citizens including the poor and marginalised and the need for social justice; elimination of school tuition, free bus fares for poor students and some free textbooks, funding for housing for some squatters and poorer families, restricted rates on water and electricity for poorer families. These are laudable achievements and are most welcome but they are no substitute for a just living wage.

These are things which any caring government should be provided for its people, particularly when a high proportion of its population is either in poverty or close to poverty. They are "social" assistance but are not directly dealing with the national minimum wage.

* Continued tomorrow

* The views expressed are the author's and not of this newspaper.

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