Fijian sugar workers, who have gone without a pay rise for seven years, are poised to strike against Fiji Sugar Corporation to win higher wages. According to the Fiji Sugar and General Workers Union (FSGWU), these workers are among the poorest in the company. With wages that have fallen in value by 40 per cent in the last seven years, they are struggling with debt and the cost of living and are unable to make ends meet.
Casuals and those who work only during the crushing season are even worse off. Since their vote to strike, workers have faced threats and intimidation from the Fijian military. Soldiers have a daily presence at the Lautoka Mill.
According to Felix Anthony, General Secretary of the FSGWU, up to three truckloads of military personnel have driven into the mill to perform “checks”. The soldiers have intimidated the workers, threatening to lock the workers out if they leave the compound.
But a fantastic show of international solidarity has bolstered the workers’ resolve. Sugar workers in two states in India have rallied to oppose the Fiji Sugar Corporation’s use of the military, and its plan to recruit Indian sugar mill engineers to break the strike.
The Fiji sugar union is also condemning poor safety standards at the mills. In July a worker died after suffering burns to 50 per cent of his body, when the support structure of an evaporator collapsed, pouring almost boiling water onto the Lautoka mill floor. Neither the FSC nor the police investigated this death, or the corporate negligence that caused it, until the union agitated publicly. And while the Bainimarama regime tried to keep silent over the workplace death, it was quick to intervene against the workers to “protect the mill” from the imminent strike.
As Bainimarama has increasingly managed Fijian capitalism, the Fiji military have been increasingly involved in attacks on union leaders and union rights. Last year Felix Anthony was detained and tortured by military thugs.
The military and FSC are trying desperately to organise a scab workforce. They first threatened to employ casual or retired sugar engineers in Fiji, then looked to recruit scabs from India. But, the regime and FSC have run up against international workers’ solidarity. Sugar workers in the Indian states of Karnataka and Maharashtra led protest rallies against the FSC’s attempt to use Indian workers to break any strike. Unionists from other industries across India are joining the protests, putting pressure on the Indian government to prevent the recruitment of Indian workers to break the strike in Fiji.
By Lucy Honan