- October 5, 2020
How Can Trade Unions Play More Impactful Roles?
Key Note Address by Professor Vijay Naidu at Fiji Trade Union Congress (FTUC) Special Delegates Conference, 16 February, 2019 in Nadi.
Mr Daniel Urai, National President, FTUC, Mr Felix Anthony, General Secretary, FTUC, Mr Donglin Li, Director ILO Office for Pacific Island Countries, Ms Latileta Gaga, Assistant National Secretary, FTUC, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen, Greetings!
I thank the FTUC and Felix Anthony for the invitation to be the key note speaker at this Special Delegates Conference. My address is divided into four parts: I begin by making a number of introductory remarks followed by observations of trends in trade union membership in countries abroad, the situation of trade unions in Fiji, and finally, comparative strategic initiatives to rejuvenate trade unions in this country. Leadership of trade unions is a pivotal matter that will be raised.
Over the last 30 years there has been a trend of declining trade union membership and interest in trade unions –this applies to both OECD countries and countries of the Global South. However, trade unions although weakened, continue to be resilient and have taken strategic measures to be relevant, and to remain at the forefront of addressing workplace issues and employment relations. In this regard the political and legal environment has been a crucial factor either enabling or stifling trade unions. Germany and Sweden show that trade unions can play vital roles in contemporary society and economy if collective agreements are legally enforceable. In these countries the majority of workers in both public and private sectors are covered by collective agreements (Chiratos, 2018).
The situation in most other countries is that both the state (government) and employers have responded to market forces unleashed by globalization to hobble trade unions, limit collective bargaining, and restrict industrial action. This has resulted in not only weakening of workers’ conditions of employment and their rights but at the societal level, and globally concentrating wealth in ever smaller number of the super-rich. The phenomena of short-term and casual precarious employment that flexible labour market has encouraged stands as stark contradiction of the SDGs’ theme of ‘leaving no one behind’!
Trends in Union Membership Abroad
Reading about trade union movements in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, United States of America, and Malaysia we find certain common and disappointing trends. These include the steep decline in trade union membership, in the number of trade unions, the number of shop-floor trade union representatives, and the capacity of trade unions to stand up for fair wages, and better conditions of employment for workers, and to protect and enhance workers’ interests.
The decline is well illustrated by density of trade union membership figures (percentage of workers who belong to trade unions). In the UK it declined from 50% in 1980 to 27% in 2010; in the USA the fall was from 20.1% in 1983 to 10.7% in 2016; in Australia the decline was from 51% in 1976 to 14% in 2016.
Reduced membership shows that the decline is especially steep in the private sector compared to the public sector; less marked in larger organisations compared to smaller entities; older workers (50 years) stay with unions compared to younger (16-24) workers; certain sectors have continued to support unions such as education and health services compared to hotel and catering. The lack of interest among younger workers in trade unions is especially alarming. In the UK the decline among young members has been from 1 in 5 to 1in 2!
According to Ramasamy (2008), “Trade unions all over the world are under attack by the very forces, drivers and consequences of globalization”. He cites Barber (2003) the TUC General Secretary in UK who maintained that “increasing global economic competition and capital mobility, rise of cross-border production networks combined with outsourcing, neoliberal economic policies, rapid pace in technological innovation, privatization, contraction of manufacturing sector and expansion of the services sector, changes in production processes, and growing employer resistance to unionization have reduced the number of ‘organisational’ workers, exacerbated difficulties in union organizing and adversely affected membership commitment to unionism. Weak enforcement of labour laws also contributes to union membership inertia.” Some if not all of these factors have affected the labour movement in Fiji. Ramasamy also maintains that in Malaysia the strict requirements of the Trade Union Act of 1959 poses a major challenge to the trade union movement in that country. This resonates with the situation in Fiji which we will discuss next.
The Fiji Situation
Trade unions in Fiji have a century-long, and proud history of promoting just wages and improved conditions of work. However in the last 30 years, following each one of the four coups in Fiji (1987, 2000 and 2006) trade unions and their leaders have been repressed (with intimidation, detention and even torture) as part of the violation of democracy, and civil society organisations that are pillars of democracy. The 2006 military coup was followed as in previous periods of political turmoil with authoritarian rule that denied a number of fundamental freedoms including the freedom of expression and the freedom of association. These seriously affected trade unions and civil society organisations, as well as the media and individual citizens.
From late 2006 to 2012 some 400 decrees were enacted and imposed on citizens. These decrees had the effect of curbing and curtailing dissenting views and the right to protest. More specifically a number of these decrees targeted trade unions and workers’ rights in the country. As a result the trade union movement went through an extremely difficult period and it is to their credit that they have survived. The decrees included the Public Emergence Decree/Public Order Decree, Employment Relations Promulgation (ERP) Decree (2007), the Essential National Industries Decree (2011), Public Order Amendment Act (2012), Public Service Amendment Decree, the Political Party Registration Decree, and the Electoral Decree as well as the Media Industries Decree.
A number of these decrees included stiff penalties and long prison sentences that compelled compliance and deterred actions that might have resulted in prosecution. Above all from the trade union stand point they acted to erode and ultimately destroy the principle of collective bargaining.
The Fiji Trade Union Congress and the Fiji Council of Trade Unions made international appeals to the trade union fraternity and the International Labour Organisation regarding the injustices being perpetrated by the regime. After the lapse of sometime and through dialogue mediated by ILO, a tripartite agreement between FTUC, the Fiji Commerce and Employers Federation, and the government was arrived at. This agreement was to denote a movement towards adhering to ILO principles thereby respecting the role of trade unions as the primary agents for collective bargaining and partners in employment and industrial relations.
Regrettably in the most recent episode of government and trade union relations it is apparent that the former has acted in bad faith. This is evidenced by (a) imposition of fixed shorter-term employment contracts on public servants; (b) the use of open merit recruitment system that provides discretionary powers to the Minister; (c) the stifling of industrial action particularly strike action by giving considerable power to the Minister, and Registrar of Trade Unions (who is also the Permanent Secretary of Employment) to deny the right to strike; (d) the termination of Wages Councils; and (e) the denial of the right to protest.
Comparative Strategic Initiatives
As indicated above Fiji trade unions survived the curbing and even curtailment of civil liberties and the imposition of draconian decrees. To their credit the unions sought solidarity from the trade union movement internationally, and also took a number of strategic initiatives on their own account. These included the urgent appeals to ILO. Before I discuss some of the domestic initiatives, I look at some initiatives taken by trade unions abroad, particularly in the UK.
In the UK the TUC and its affiliates have sought to rejuvenate and strengthen trade unions by acting on four fronts: organizing, partnerships, learning, and strategizing around procurement. With regards to organizing, the labour market has become extremely fragmented with increasing number of jobs being casual and temporary with low pay. Hitherto these forms of employment were seen as atypical and not the norm, but precarious employment has been on the rise. Trade unions have made it their business to seek the protection of such workers including migrant and minority workers, thereby not only expanding their membership but also ensuring that such forms of employment comply with accepted labour standards, and have conditions that characterize longer term and more secure employment. Interestingly a major initiative involved unionizing elements of the security forces. Some unions have sought to attract community membership at minimal charges to the unemployed, women and university students.
Mutually beneficial partnerships have been sought with employers by some trade unions –these are more than in-house unions fostered by firms. The partnering has involved greater consultations between management and union representatives on most work-place related matters. Such partnerships have been useful in some instances and hollow in others.
Alliances have been established with civil society groups that are concerned about the wellbeing of vulnerable groups, poverty and human rights. “Launched by Citizens UK in 2001, the Living Wage campaign has won over £500 million of additional wages, lifting over 150,000 people out of working poverty.
The Living Wage is an hourly rate, calculated according to cost of living in the UK. The UK Living Wage is currently £9 per hour. The London Living Wage is currently £10.55 per hour. (https://www.citizensuk.org/living_wage).
The New Zealand Living Wage Movement has been campaigning for a living wage rather than a minimum wage in recent years. The movement now has 100 accredited employers who have committed themselves to NZ$ 20.55 (http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO1804/S00038/2055-the-2018-new-zealand-living-wage-rate.htm. There is great potential in extending such partnership with civil society organisations that are pushing for gender equality, human rights, civil rights, environmental and social justice.
UK trade unions and the TUC have also increasingly been supportive of government efforts to protect workers from unscrupulous employers by adopting regulatory measures. Trade unions have also become adept at negotiating in arbitration and mediation processes that government has put in place to restrict industrial action!
Union learning has been another major area of trade union engagement in recent years. Realizing that there are skill gaps in numerous areas in their membership, trade unions have actively worked with those with the expertise to address these gaps. These initiatives include training in human resource management, communication, conflict resolution and information technology.
Strategies relating to procurement for the unions and TUC have meant that established larger unionized employers have been approached to ensure that their sources of supplies and services adhere to acceptable labour standards including wages. While subcontracting, out-sourcing and agency-based employment have increased, trade union initiatives in procurement have helped secure worker protection.
How many of these strategic initiatives are relevant to us in Fiji is a matter for the conference. However, before I conclude this address, I would like to say a few words regarding some recent actions by trade union leaders and the FTUC.
First, the membership of the FTUC in the NGO Coalition on Human Rights ensured trade union engagement with more than a dozen other civil society groups that fought strongly for the dignity and respect of all citizens of the country during the period of military backed government.
Second, during the ATS lockout, the support and solidarity provided to ATS workers by the union movement, the community including indigenous groups in the face of a stubborn management and board backed by the government (December 2017 to January, 2018), was inspirational and boosted the resolve of the workers to fight for their rights. They were vindicated by the decision of the court.
Third, in the midst of the difficulties faced by the trade union movement in Fiji, the expressions of support and solidarity that have come from the international trade unions including those in Australia and New Zealand have helped morale in the trade union leadership here. Keeping lines of communication open with these unions is pivotal.
Fourth, the courageous leadership of public sector union and teachers union leaders, and FTUC is praiseworthy and of great significance in the struggle to ensure fairness for civil servants and our teachers. Contract employment of the type being unilaterally imposed must be opposed.
Fifth, the trade union movement’s efforts to claw back many of the rights that have been unilaterally removed and appealing to the ILO as an independent and international specialist organization in the area of labour rights have been fruitful. The FTUC has sought to keep ILO fully informed about the slow progress and even lack of progress in respecting some fundamental principles of collective bargaining and taking industrial action has ensured that ILO continues to monitor the Fiji situation.
Sixth, the coming together (merger) of FTUC and FICTU is most welcome. As the old public employees union building posture used to say “United We Stand, Divided We Fall”! I congratulate and commend the leaders of FTUC and FICTU.
In this regard let me make three more points: first, leadership of any organization is critical in the success or failure of the organization. Trade union leaders need to be persons of foresight, have integrity, have humility and be dedicated servants to their membership. Promptly acting on members grievances wins their support, and the lack of action means that their interest in the union wanes. Keeping lines of communication including via email, viber and other mobile phone applications are part of the job these days. Your own experiences may have shown that social media also provides considerable scope for advocacy.
Second, it is really vital that FTUC and its affiliates set aside resources to research and reflect on information gathered on a continuous basis. I know that some research is obviously being undertaken, the question is whether it is adequate.
Finally and most importantly, for the survival of trade unions in Fiji and elsewhere, there is a need to recruit young people, women and minorities. Without actively recruiting and retaining the younger generation, the future of trade unions and the labour movement is likely to be bleak.
Charlwood, A and Haynes, P (2008) Union Membership Decline in New Zealand. 1990-2002, Journal of Industrial Relations, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0022185607085696
Chiratos, A (2018) The role of Trade Unions in the contemporary society and economy, Kent Student Law Review, 4 , 1-19
Gilfillan, G and McGann, C (2018) Trends in Union Membership in Australia, Parliament of Australia, https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1819/UnionMembership
Gunn, D (2018) What caused the decline of Unions in America, Pacific Standard, https://psmag.com/economics/what-caused-the-decline-of-unions-in-america
Ramasamy, N (2008), The Future of the Trade Union Movement in Malaysia, Unvesiti Putra Malaysia,
Wright, C.F (2011) What role for trade unions in the future workplace relations?
Research Fellow, Faculty of Economics, University of Cambridge. Acas, (September).
Wright, CF (2011) The State of the Unions –University of Cambridge –Chris Wright lead researcher on a project focusing on the revitalisation of unions, in which he worked with the TUC. https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/the-state-of-the-unions