November 03, 2011

Radio Australia: ACTU accuses Fiji of persecuting trade unionists

Updated November 2, 2011 17:36:58

Australia's peak trade union body says the Fiji government's treatment of unionists has escalated from harassment to persecution.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions President, Ged Kearney, was responding to the detention of Fiji Trades Union Congress President Daniel Urai.

He was arrested at the weekend as he arrived back in Fiji from Australia, where he had been part of meetings at the margins of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth.

Presenter: Bruce Hill
Speaker: Ged Kearney, president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions 
Listen here.

KEARNEY: Well there was some fear that that was going to happen. Daniel of course had been in Perth with me during the Commonwealth People's Forum all week before and we had had some discussions with him about our plans here in Australia to support Fiji workers and what had gone before and given that we did have a response from the attorney-general from Fiji about our activities here in Australia, that wasn't terribly positive, we were concerned that Daniel would be arrested when he got back and indeed that's what happened.

HILL: What was it that he was doing in Perth at CHOGM that may have got the Fiji authorities upset at him?

KEARNEY: We did have a meeting with the prime minister where we raised with several other union delegates where we raised Fiji amongst the things that we were concerned about. The International Trade Union Confederation released a report on the human rights violation in the Commonwealth more broadly and we included Fiji in that report. So we did present that report to the prime minister and we did some media on that report and included Fiji. Fiji wasn't the only country we spoke to that included Fiji, so we're wondering if that caught the ears of the authorities back in Fiji.

HILL: Do you think that his activities in Australia may have been the reason why he was arrested?

KEARNEY: I don't think it's solely the reason. As you know, Daniel has been subjected to persecution for sometime now, being president of the Fiji Trade Union Congress and he has been in jail before, so I think this is just part of an ongoing battle against unions. The regime there, the Bainimarama regime seems very keen on breaking the unions and any roles the unions have in civil society.

HILL: Is it likely that this treatment of Daniel Urai is very high profile public treatment might put other trade unionists in Fiji off cooperating with overseas trade unions, such as yours?

KEARNEY: The conversations that we've had with other trade unionists in Fiji have been very supportive. They are very keen for us to continue supporting them, to continue any campaigns that we might be considering and they are determined as ever, in fact I think it has probably sharpened their resolve to continue to fight the regime in this way.

HILL: You're saying that Daniel Urai was involved in discussions about helping Fiji workers, by putting pressure on the Fiji government, but the Fiji government very strongly makes the point that by initiating boycotts, and persuading people not to travel to Fiji as tourists, you're actually hurting the ordinary Fijian worker?

KEARNEY: Unfortunately, the workers of Fiji know that there's not much else for them to do. In this respect, they understand the importance of raising awareness of the plight of Fiji workers abroad, and not just in the Pacific, but around the world. And despite the fact that yes, this may impact on their livelihoods, it seems to us that they are prepared to make that sacrifice or actually understand that that's an important part of what we're doing.

HILL: Given what's happened to Daniel Urai, are you going to be a bit more circumspect in the way you tackle Fiji issues or is it just going to make you more determined?

KEARNEY: Well, in some ways it's made us more determined and as I said, we've had discussions with the Fijian trade union movement there and they are very keen for us to continue anything that we can do that will raise the issue internationally and support change. We need constitutional change in Fiji to make sure that all people have human rights and civil rights, including workers and trade unionists.

HILL: He's been held now basically without charge, is there anything that the Overseas Trade Unions can do about this beyond saying things in the media?

KEARNEY: Well, there is very little that we can do. As you know, the regime can hold people up to ten days without charging them and Daniel has been incarcerated since Saturday. We are just trying to raise awareness about this, we have alerted the Australian High Commission in Fiji, we are assisting in any way we can, but it's very difficult for us to do anything from afar.

HILL: Do you think Daniel Urai is the last unionist to the arrested in Fiji?

KEARNEY: I do not, no. I think we will see more of this and it's going beyond harassment. It's almost becoming persecution I think, of trade unionists.

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