22 Jan 2018

Fiji airport workers due to return after month locked out

12:20 pm on 22 January 2018

About 200 service and maintenance workers are expected to return to their jobs at Fiji's main airport this morning, after a judge ordered an end to their month-long lockout.

People gather to march in Nadi

The ATS workers had been locked out since December, prompting a large march through the town of Nadi. Photo: FTUC

The workers had been suspended without pay since December, when they attended a meeting to discuss grievances with their employer, ATS, including an 11-year pay freeze and allegations of sexual harassment.

ATS said the gathering amounted to illegal strike action, and would only allow workers to return if they signed a letter admitting guilt.

But a court on Saturday said ATS did not follow due process, giving the company 48 hours to allow the workers to return to their jobs at Nadi airport.

A spokesperson for the employees, Vili Finau, said the judge also ordered that all pay and entitlements owed since 16 December be restored.

Mr Finau said the ruling vindicated the workers, who had struggled without pay for a month.

"Everyone is celebrating today," he said.

"There's a lot of acknowledgement that we need to do - to friends, family members, people of the community who came forward to help us, providing help through finances, food, stationery to help our children get back to school. So this is celebration time."

Air Niugini and Fiji Airways parked at Nadi International Airport in Fiji

Air Niugini and Fiji Airways parked at Nadi International Airport in Fiji Photo: RNZI/Sally Round

Tribunal involvement

The end of the lock-out came after Fiji's Employment Relations Tribunal stepped in.

Last week it dissected the dispute at the Nadi Magistrates Court after ATS management filed an application for the tribunal to clarify the definition of illegal strike.

Resident magistrate Andrew See said the workers' issues of concern could be addressed once all of the employees returned to work.

During the proceedings, Mr See warned that the actions of both parties over the past month had not been "completely exemplary".

He said the workers' actions in walking off the job suggested that prima facie unlawful industrial action had been taken, but management made the situation worse by suspending workers without pay and without following established procedures for such actions.

While the Fiji government was critical of unionists during the dispute to date, the workers have had significant public support.

Earlier this month an estimated 2,500 people marched in Nadi to back the locked out workers.

Unions in Australia and New Zealand also demonstrated their support and kept up pressure on Fiji's government to end the lockout.

ATS considering more legal action

ATS said it welcomed the tribunal's decision but did not view it as a win for either party but more a win for Fiji's employment law.

In a statement, the firm's management said it noted "the decision does not prevent any disciplinary measures from being taken against the workers for abandoning their positions and engaging in an unlawful walkout".

The management said it was seeking further legal advice to consider "additional legal steps".

It also said it would be making other changes to security.

"ATS will also be implementing certain security measures to prevent any further economic sabotage from taking place in the workplace to ensure there are no serious disruptions to ATS services and

threats to the Fijian economy in the future. This is of particular concern given the politicisation of the situation by some actors."

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