October 04, 2012

US Unions critical of Fiji's record on workers rights

Updated 3 October 2012, 10:10 AEST

The trade union movement in the United States says they don't necessarily want Fiji to be punished with loss of preferential access to the US market because of its record on workers rights.

The American Federation of Labour- Congress of Industrial Organisations, the umbrella organisation of American trade unions, is one of the parties making submissions to a government hearing in Washington about Fiji's involvement in the generalised system of preferences program which provides preferential duty-free treatment for products from developing countries.

Fiji's interim government has sent a delegation to a hearing in Washington, and they'll be arguing that their record on workers rights is better than the local unions are saying.

The AFL-CIO says suspending Fiji's access to the US market is a last resort, and they'd prefer the interim government to work with US authorities to improve workers rights.

Bruce Hill reports.

Presenter: Bruce Hill

Speaker: Celeste Drake, the AFL-CIO's Trade Policy Specialist

SONG: I am a union woman, just as brave as I can be. I do not like the bosses and the bosses don't like me. Join the CIO, come join the CIO.

HILL: The American trade union movement has deep roots in the often bitter and violent labor disputes of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It's a bit more established and respectable these days, but its radical roots have always given it a sense of international solidarity with other union movements, and this is shown by the support the AFL-CIO is giving to the Fiji unions in the hearings about Fiji's preferential access to the US market.

Celeste Drake is the AFL-CIO's Trade Policy Specialist, and she says the American unions want the Fiji government to change its ways, and punishing it by making access to the US market more difficult is not something they want to see happen, at least not right away.

DRAKE: But there will be no decision right away, it's a hearing, it's basically sort of a fact gathering hearing. What happens typically, I understand that the government of Fiji is putting out a big wall about how horrible this is going to be. But nothing is really immediately under threat. Typically the United States government will take the information presented at the hearing, they will probably do at least one visit to the country to meet with workers, the government, businesses to sort of gather its own facts independently and try and verify the truth of the allegations. And then it typically works with the government, to the extent the government is willing to work with it, to say here are the things that we found that really do need improvement, assuming it finds such things and I have no doubt it will find such things in the case of Fiji. And basically work with the government to try and change the law and/or change the enforcement scheme so that the US government is more confident that the government is taking steps to afford internationally recognised worker rights.

HILL: If that doesn't happen though what could the potential penalties be for the Fiji government from America?

DRAKE: The penalties could range from nothing at all, nothing happens, to a total revocation of the GSP Terris (?) benefit, that particular outcome however is extremely, extremely rare, and to my knowledge it's maybe been done once or twice in the history of the GSP regime. And then in between that the US government can revoke benefits say on a couple of particular products or to revoke a percentage of the benefits. But as I say the US government is loathe to make any sort of decision right away.

HILL: Well you represent the AFL-CIO, the American Labor Federation, the trade union umbrella body, what does your organisation want the American government to do as to trade with Fiji?

DRAKE: We want our government to put pressure on the Fijian government to basically change its ways. It needs to revoke some of these anti-worker decrees and the government needs to stop some of the repression and intimidation against trade unionists and really make things better for workers in Fiji. That's what we want, and we would much prefer that things get better for workers than the US have to revoke any portion of the GSP benefits.

HILL: Well the Fiji interim government says that this is simply going to punish workers in Fiji, they say under the most maximum sort of penalties that could be applied, 15-thousand jobs could go in Fiji if they don't get this preferential access to the US market. They're saying 75-thousand Fijians would be affected, they're saying you're simply listening to the Fiji trade unionists who have a political axe to grind, and that you don't really understand the situation in Fiji as it is on the ground, where things are actually fine, they're trying to help workers, and they're saying this would actually hurt workers?

DRAKE: Well the evidence that we have is in contradiction to that, and this isn't just the AFL-CIO talking, but it's the International Trade Union Confederation, it's the ILO, it's the ACTU, it's many others who have looked at the situation in Fiji, read the news, met with Fijian workers and said things are really going badly here and the government needs to turn it around in order to give workers their rights back. The worst case scenario, even if the government's figures are 100 per cent true on the number of jobs and the amount of money lost. That only occurs if the government has absolutely no intention of working with the US government to try and improve things for workers. So it's really all in the Fijian government's hands.

HILL: Well there has been other international organisations trying to work with the interim government in Fiji. The ILO sent a delegation, but of course that was basically expelled from the country more or less as soon as it arrived?

DRAKE: Exactly and the government of Fiji in its brief that it submitted to the US government nationally bragged about this ILO mission as part of what it was doing for workers, and that was really the same day that the mission was expelled, and we think that right there is very telling about the government's approach to workers and we really hope that the experience of having to testify and sort of be questioned about it and why did you make the ILO mission leave, will perhaps turn this government around and let it know it really needs to do things differently.

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