Over the past month we have seen the call for democratic reform sweep across northern Africa and the Middle East like a wildfire, toppling or bringing to the brink repressive regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya. Oppressed peoples across the world again have shown their preparedness to sacrifice all for genuine democracy.

Free trade unions — those that are independent of the governing regime, and consequently usually victims of persecution — have been at the forefront of the democratic reforms, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt. Over history — for example, in South and Latin America, in Poland, in South Africa, worker organisations have frequently acted as the main opposition to dictatorial governments. And unionists worldwide hail the courage of our colleagues in northern Africa.

Closer to home and plain for all to see, there is no democracy in today’s Fiji.

A series of decisions introduced by the “interim” regime of Commodore Frank Bainimarama have curtailed human rights and suppressed dissenting views.  Fiji’s constitution has been abrogated.  The independence and integrity of the judiciary has been compromised and media freedoms curtailed.

The Bainimarama military dictatorship, which seized power in 2006, has abandoned any pretext of commitment to the principles of equality, non-discrimination, and human, trade union, social and economic rights.

The regime has adopted intimidation tactics to instill fear in workers and trade unions.  In the past two weeks, the head of the Fiji trade unions was twice detained by the military. His family and colleagues did not know his whereabouts while he was detained, nor when he would be released.

The role of trade unions as the voice of workers has never been more important in Fiji. Since the latest coup, the economic situation in Fiji has deteriorated sharply. In 2007, in a year when most economies were performing well, Fiji experienced negative growth of 6.6%. It is estimated that growth figures for 2009 will show a decline of 5.5% and the trend is likely to have continued in 2010.

The economic situation is having a considerable impact on communities. Unemployment, under-employment and poverty are rising in Fiji. The number of Fijians living below the poverty line has increased from approximately 25% to 34% between 1996 and 2007.  Today it is estimated that more than 40% of Fijians are now living on or below the poverty line.

On such meagre incomes, it is a struggle to meet basic needs and the task is becoming increasingly difficult as the cost of food, electricity, water and fuel prices escalate. There are now over 200 squatter settlements around the major towns.

About 60% of those living below the poverty line are in work. But it is not decent work. Decent work provides stable, predictable and adequate income to families. Decent work is a quality job under conditions of freedom, equity, security and dignity. Decent work is one of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, but many Fijians do not have it.

Trade unions play an important role in the promotion of decent work. As the voice for workers, trade unions also hold an important voice in civil society, an integral aspect of any democracy.

In Bainimarama’s Fiji the capacity of trade unions to represent workers has been significantly curtailed. Trade unions have no right to challenge any decision of government or government-owned enterprises in Fiji regarding redundancy or change to any terms or conditions of employment.   This violates Fiji’s own labour laws and the obligations it has as a member of the International Labour Organisation.

Despite the political context, Fijian trade unions are committed to represent Fijian workers and their families. Australian unions will stand shoulder to shoulder with Fijian workers, their families and trade unions in the struggle for human rights, sustainable peace and democracy.

I travelled to Fiji this month for the first time in several years.  The last time I was in Fiji was before the 2006 coup.  At that time the country and its people were slowly recovering from the political, economic and social upheaval caused by previous military coups in 1987 and 2000. It was a country  again seeking to rebuild and overcome the challenges of disunity that have plagued the country since independence.

Fiji’s destabilising divisions date back to the British colonial period when the demography of Fiji was permanently altered. Between 1879 and 1916, more than 60,000 Indian men, women and children arrived in the Fiji colony. Since independence, fractures within the indigenous Fijian community have also emerged.

These social fissures have lead some to question whether democracy is viable in Fiji.  In my view Fiji is not viable without democracy.

Brij Lal, an eminent Fijian historian reminds us, Fiji urgently needs democratic institutions to ensure norms of restraint, tolerance, inclusiveness, egalitarianism, acceptance and co-existence are widely accepted.

Fiji must hold immediate elections, return to democracy and recommit to a rights-based approach. Universal human rights and the economic and social situation demand it.

As I continue to watch the developments half way across the world, I think wouldn’t it be great if the spirit of democracy spread to this little pocket of the globe?

*Ged Kearney is President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions

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