12 Feb 2003

700 workers at Fiji's state-owned cannery are reported to be living below the poverty line

8:20 am on 12 February 2003

Over 700 workers at Fiji's state-owned tuna cannery are reported to be living below the poverty line and working in draconian conditions.

The Daily Post reports that this has been revealed before an arbitration tribunal looking into a wage dispute at the Levuka-based Pacific Fishing Company.

The arbitrator has been told that the employees are heavily in debt because no adjustments have been made for cost-of-living increases for 20 years, forcing them to borrow from loan sharks and dipping into their Provident Fund contributions.

A submission for the cannery workers unionprepared by Dr Sunil Kumar of the USP says the workers were paid 72 US cents an hour in 1988 and this had increased to just 82 US cents ten years later in 1998 - a rate that is still in force now.

Dr Kumar says this is outrageous and no reasonable business entity should inflict such an injustice on its workers

He argues that a 70 per cent increase is necessary just to put this category of workers back to their 1998 buying power.

The cannery has also admitted that it pays its women workers, nearly all of whom are indigenous Fijians, 5 cents an hour less than its male workers.

The secretary of the cannery employees union, Tomasi Tokalauvere, attacked the company for sexual discrimination and discrimination against women's rights.

He says the state-owned company should abide by the principles of the International Labour Organisation which Fiji has ratified and honour the affirmative action for indigenous Fijians detailed in the Qarase government's blueprint.