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Why Has the UN's ILO Been Kicked Out of an Island Paradise?

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There's trouble in paradise. The military regime that currently runs the small South Pacific island of Fiji this week added to its pariah status by 'asking' a delegation from the UN's workplace agency (the International Labour Organisation, or ILO) to leave the country.

It was politely phrased, but the ILO itself recognised that what it calls a 'contact mission' had been 'aborted'. It is further evidence that Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, and his shadowy Attorney General and Lord-High-Everything-Else Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, can't stand any criticism or opposition to the dictatorial rule which has, as a by-product, trashed the island’s economy.

The ILO mission was led by world-renowned Sierra Leonean Judge Karoma, who sits on the International Court of Justice. He and his colleagues were in Fiji to find out more about the abuse of fundamental workers’ rights - the right to join a union and bargain with your employer - which its own Committee of Experts (eminent jurists all) had determined the Fijian regime was breaching.

They aren’t the only fundamental human rights the Fijian regime ignores. Even the Methodists (the largest religious group on the island) aren’t allowed to meet without specific permission from the regime. Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are almost non-existent, and a leading Hong Kong advocate has recently alleged that the independence of the judiciary has been stolen from the Fijian people.

Trade unionists have seen their right to bargain collectively gradually rolled up sector by sector under the Essential Industries Decree, and their rights have been removed entirely in the sugar mills that are the key industry in Fiji. Worse still are the frequent beatings and arbitrary arrests meted out by the police and the army. Union leaders are denied the right to travel because the regime doesn’t want them spreading the truth abroad, and if they do get out, they are often arrested on trumped up charges on their return.

The ILO is not the only international organisation at loggerheads with the regime. Fiji is suspended from the Commonwealth and by the Pacific Islands Forum. The European Union has suspended several aid programmes and is likely to renew their suspension next Monday. Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office has this year added Fiji to the list of countries at risk in its Annual Human Rights Report.

The TUC is working with international trade unionists, as well as colleagues in Australia and New Zealand where Fijians often find refuge, to help the Fijian trade union movement maintain its independence, retain its capacity to help working people tackle the twin challenges of dictatorship and poverty.

What Fijian trade unionists want most is for people to know what is really going on in Fiji, which is why the TUC will be leafleting spectators at this November’s rugby matches at Twickenham and Gloucester (and our colleagues in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions will be doing the same in Limerick). It's said that the Fijian Prime Minister’s main concern about Fiji’s suspension from the Commonwealth was the resultant ban from the Commonwealth Games in India in 2010, and he will be similarly ostracised from the Edinburgh Games in 2014 unless democracy is restored.

His promise to do just that is now in even more serious doubt, thanks to the clumsy expulsion of the ILO mission.

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