Fiji has been given three weeks to back its case on why it should not be removed from the United States' Generalized System of Preferences trade list.
This follows a hearing at the United States Trade Representative Office in Washington DC today.
The Fiji delegation led by the acting Solicitor-General Sharvada Sharma, Ambassador Winston Thompson, Solicitor-General’s Office lawyer, Salaseini Serulagilagi, and First Secretary Ray Baleikasavu attended the hearing to convince the US to keep Fiji on the GSP list.
Addressing the Generalized System of Preferences Sub-committee (GSPSC), Sharma said the government had implemented constitutional processes and has lifted the Public Emergency Regulations in January. Fiji is now operating under the amended Public Order Act which provides internationally accepted, modern laws to combat terrorism, racial and religious vilification, and other serious public order offences.
The GSPSC was also updated about worker-related reforms, including the implementation of substantial income tax reduction for workers, a National Employment Centre, a soon-to-be-established National Minimum Wage for Fijian workers, and a no-fault compensation scheme for injury at work.
Sharma told the committee the Essential National Industries (Employment) Decree 2011 is aimed at ensuring the viability of specific industries that are vital to the Fijian economy and GDP. The decree is designed to protect jobs, while safeguarding the fundamental rights of workers. It does not destroy the trade union movement in Fiji, as has been alleged.
It was also stressed to the GSPSC that under this Decree, workers continue to have fundamental rights, including the right to organize; form unions; independently vote for representatives; bargain collectively; and develop processes to resolve employment disputes and grievances. It was also highlighted that the Decree is not unique as its key provisions are comparable to that of the US National Labor Relations Act and laws in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
The GSPSC was also informed about workers in essential industries, having freely organised, formed bargaining units, and elected representatives. They have also reached collective agreements with employers and have devised their own dispute resolution processes.
The government’s concerns with respect to the impact of the loss of GSP to Fiji and the Fijian workers were also emphasised at the hearing. Currently, 39 Fijian companies export Fiji’s products into the US market under the GSP system. In 2011, this generated $57 million in export revenues. If Fiji was taken off this list, 15,000 workers could be laid off, adversely affecting 75,000 Fijians.
The GSPSC was informed that, in order to address the lack of bilateral relations between the Fijian Government and the US Government, a bilateral informal dialogue process could be established with appropriate US trade and labour officials to assist all parties in obtaining true facts about the rights of workers in Fiji.
In an interview with Radio Australia, the United States trade union movement has said that suspending Fiji’s access to the US market is the last resort, at least not right away, and that they would prefer the interim government work with the authorities to improve workers rights.
Speaking to Radio Australia, American Federation of Labour- Congress of Industrial Organisations Trade Policy Specialist, Celeste Drake said the trade union movement in the United States does not necessarily want Fiji to be punished with loss of preferential access to the US market because of its record on workers rights.
She said onus is on the Fiji Govt saying that the massive job losses to Fijians will only occur “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.”
The AFL-CIO, 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.