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Fiji

Executive Summary

Fiji is a constitutional republic. In November 2018 the country held general elections, which international observers deemed free, transparent, and credible. Josaia Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama’s Fiji First party won 27 of 51 seats in parliament, and he began a second four-year term as prime minister.

The Fiji Police Force maintains internal security. The Republic of Fiji Military Force (RFMF) is responsible for external security but may also have some domestic-security responsibilities in specific circumstances. Both report to the Ministry of Defense and National Security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: restrictions on free expression, such as substantial interference with the right of peaceful assembly; and trafficking in persons.

The government investigated some security-force officials who committed abuses and prosecuted or punished officials who committed abuses elsewhere in the government; however, impunity was a problem in cases with political implications.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but it grants the government authority to restrict these rights for a broad array of reasons. These include preventing hate speech and insurrection; maintaining national security, public order, public safety, public morality, public health, and the orderly conduct of elections; protecting the reputation, privacy, dignity, and rights of other persons; enforcing media standards; and regulating the conduct of media organizations. The POA also gives the government power to detain persons on suspicion of “endangering public safety” and to “preserve the peace.” The authorities continue to use the wide provisions in this law to restrict freedom of expression. The law on media prohibits “irresponsible reporting” and provides for government censorship of media.

Freedom of Expression: The law includes criticism of the government in its definition of the crime of sedition. This includes statements made in other countries by any person.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were somewhat active; however, journalists practiced self-censorship on sensitive political or communal topics because of restrictions in the law and monitoring by the Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA). The opposition and other critics of the government accused the government of using state power to silence critics.

In July the appellate court reviewed an appeal brought by the prosecution in the case of three staff members of the Fiji Times, including the editor in chief, who were acquitted on sedition charges in May 2018; a decision on the appeal remains pending. Despite the journalists’ acquittal, media observers and human rights activists expressed concern the long investigation and trial had served to stifle free speech. The three staff were charged with sedition for the 2016 publication of a letter to the editor in the Fiji Times indigenous-language newspaper Nai Lalakai.

Violence and Harassment: On April 3, police detained three journalists from New Zealand’s Newsroom agency who were investigating allegations of environmental damage caused by a Chinese developer, Freesoul Real Estate, on Fiji’s Malolo Island. Police released the journalists 13 hours later, without charge. Prime Minister Bainimarama personally delivered a public apology for the officers’ actions, while Commissioner of Police Sitiveni Qiliho clarified in the media that the detention was “an isolated incident by a small group of rogue police officers.”

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The media law authorizes the government to censor all news stories before broadcast or publication. Although the government ceased prior censorship in 2012, the law remains on the books, and journalists and media organizations continued to practice varying degrees of self-censorship citing a fear of prosecution. Despite this, media published opinion articles by academics and commentators critical of the government.

By law, directors and 90 percent of shareholders in local media must be citizens and permanently reside in the country. MIDA is responsible for enforcing these provisions and has power to investigate media outlets for alleged violations, and the power to search facilities and seize equipment.

The code of ethics in the law requires that media publish balanced material. It obligates media to give any individual or organization an opportunity to reply to comments or provide materials for publication. Journalists reported this requirement did not restrict reporting as much as in past years.

The law on television requires television station operators to conform to the media law’s code of ethics.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel, slander and defamation are treated as civil matters under the law. The constitution, however, includes protecting the reputation of persons as a permissible limitation to freedom of expression, including of the press. Some measure of this constitutional provision was enacted via the 2018 Online Safety Act. Authorities have used this act and the commission established in January under this act to restrict public discussion, establishing a de facto form of criminal libel with imprisonment penalties (see Internet Freedom, below).

Court decisions on two separate 2018 defamation lawsuits, the first brought by the prime minister and attorney general and the second by supervisor of elections, charging opposition critics with posting defamatory remarks on social media remained pending at year’s end.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association; however, the government restricted these freedoms in some cases.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

Under the POA, to enforce public order, the government may restrict freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation.

In-country Movement: There were no reports the government restricted any person’s in-country movement during the year.

Exile: The government used re-entry bans as a de facto means of exiling critics. As in past years, opposition parties called on the government to lift re-entry bans on all existing and former citizens, including historian and former citizen Brij Lal, a critic of the government living in Australia. The Immigration Department has stated Lal could reapply for re-entry into the country; however, the ban reportedly remained in place as of November. Lal was deported from Fiji in 2009 by the interim government for activities “prejudicial to the peace, defense, and public security of the Government of Fiji.” Lal’s wife, Padma, also an academic, was stopped from re-entering the country in 2010.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides assistance to officials to undertake refugee-status determination procedures.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and electoral law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections generally held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year.

Corruption: The Fiji Independent Commission against Corruption (FICAC) reports directly to the president and investigates public agencies and officials, including police. Government measures to combat corruption within the bureaucracy, including FICAC public-service announcements encouraging citizens to report corrupt government activities, had some effect on systemic corruption. Media published articles on FICAC investigations of abuse of office, and anonymous blogs reported on some government corruption.

The government adequately funded FICAC, but some observers questioned its independence and viewed some of its high-profile prosecutions as politically motivated.

The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions charged two police officers with fraud.

Corruption cases often proceeded slowly. In October the trial of former corrections chief lieutenant colonel Ifereimi Vasu began. Authorities dismissed him in 2015 for abuse of office related to his alleged misuse of a prison minimart.

Financial Disclosure: No law requires income and asset disclosure by appointed or elected officials. The law, however, requires financial disclosures by candidates running for election and party officials. In May 2018 FICAC charged Sitiveni Rabuka, leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, with making a false declaration of his assets, income, and liabilities. The court acquitted Rabuka of all charges in October 2018. The appellate court dismissed a FICAC appeal of the ruling a week later.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views.

The law constrained NGO operations in several ways. For example, the law includes criticism of the government in its definition of sedition.

A women’s advocate publicly alleged police called her repeatedly before a planned meeting for civil society organizations with visiting UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, demanding she reveal what she would discuss with Guterres and asking who else would attend the meeting.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The constitution establishes the FHRADC, and it continued to receive reports of human rights violations lodged by citizens. The constitution prohibits the FHRADC from investigating cases filed by individuals and organizations relating to the 2006 coup and the 2009 abrogation of the 1997 constitution. While the FHRADC routinely worked with the government to improve certain human rights matters (such as prisoner treatment), observers reported it generally declined to address politically sensitive human rights matters and typically took the government’s side in public statements, leading observers to assess the FHRADC as progovernment.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides all workers the right to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and strike.

The law prohibits some forms of antiunion discrimination, including victimizing workers or firing a worker for union membership.

The law limits who may be an officer of a trade union, prohibiting noncitizens, for example, from serving as officers. The constitution prohibits union officers from becoming members of parliament. The law also limits the ability of union officers to form or join political parties and exercise other political rights.

All unions must register with the government, which has discretionary power to refuse to register any union with a name that is “offensive or racially or ethnically discriminatory.” By law the government may cancel registration of existing unions in exceptional cases.

By law any trade union with seven or more members in an industry not designated as essential may enter into collective bargaining with an employer.

Unions may conduct secret strike ballots upon 14 days’ notice to the Registrar of Trade Unions and the strike may begin if 50 percent of all members who are entitled to vote approve the strike. Workers in essential services may strike but must also notify the Arbitration Court; and provide the category of workers who propose to strike, the starting date, and location of the strike. The law designates “essential service and industries” to include corporations engaged in finance, telecommunications, public-sector employees, mining, transport, and the airline industry. The definition of essential services and industries also includes all state-owned enterprises, statutory authorities, and local government authorities.

The law permits the minister of employment to declare a strike unlawful and refer the dispute to the Arbitration Court. If authorities refer the matter to the court, workers and strike leaders could face criminal charges if they persist in strike action.

The government did not enforce these rights. Penalties under law for violations of freedom of association and of collective bargaining agreements include fines and imprisonment; observers considered them sufficient to deter violations. Individuals, employers, and unions (on behalf of their members) may submit employment disputes and grievances alleging discrimination, unfair dismissal, sexual harassment, or certain other unfair labor practices to the Ministry of Employment, Productivity, and Industrial Relations (MEPIR).

Relations between the government and the two trade union umbrella bodies, the FTUC and the Fiji Islands Council of Trade Unions remained strained. The government took a number of steps against union officials and workers planning strikes and protest marches. In April, authorities harassed officials of the FTUC who planned to hold a May 3 nationwide strike and a May 4 protest in Nadi, the site of an ADB summit to be hosted by Fiji on May 1-5. Authorities denied permits for the protests and deployed approximately 400 police officers to cover the summit, warning the union to desist from “causing any major incidents to undermine Fiji’s reputation.” On May 1, police arrested several workers of the Water Authority of Fiji (WAF) for breaching the POA after they had gathered to protest the termination of many WAF employees. Also arrested were FTUC General Secretary Felix Anthony, the secretaries of the FTA and nurses’ union, and an officer of the National Union of Workers. Anthony was held for 48 hours under the POA for organizing “unlawful gatherings” about the WAF dispute. On June 28, police again arrested Anthony, charging him with breach of the POA for false statements regarding the expiry of employment contracts for the WAF workers and other infractions. Anthony was later released on bail, but charges remain pending.

Trade unions reported additional antiunion government action, including unilateral voiding of collective-bargaining agreements with civil servants; lockouts and threats of retaliation in order to prevent unions from voting on industrial action; dismissal of union members; and a pattern of systematic harassment and intimidation.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The constitution and law prohibit all forms of forced or compulsory labor.

The Office of Labour Inspectorate, police, and Department of Immigration are responsible for enforcing the law, depending on the circumstances of the case. The government effectively enforced the law. The law prescribes penalties which were sufficient to deter violations.

There were reports forced labor occurred, including forced labor of children (see section 7.c.). Forced labor and trafficking of children occurred in the field of domestic work. Southeast Asians were subject to forced labor in manufacturing, agriculture, and fishing.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

Education is compulsory until age 15; the Employment Relations Promulgation specifies that children ages 13 to 15 may be employed on a daily-wage basis in nonindustrial “light” work not involving machinery, provided they return to their parents or guardian every night. The law sets a limit of eight hours per day that a child can work but does not include a list of permissible activities. Children ages 15 to 17 may be employed, but they must have specified hours and rest breaks. They may not be employed in hazardous occupations and activities, including those involving heavy machinery, hazardous materials, mining, or heavy physical labor, the care of children, or work within security services.

MEPIR deployed inspectors countrywide to enforce compliance with the law, including law covering child labor. The government effectively enforced applicable law, and penalties were generally sufficient to deter violations. The law provides for imprisonment, fines, or both, for companies that violate these provisions. MEPIR maintains a database on child labor. Unannounced inspections are permitted within the informal sector, but inspectors must first seek the business owners’ permission before conducting the inspection. If there is reasonable cause to believe that prior notification of an inspection will prejudice the performance of the inspector’s duties, a police officer must accompany the inspector during the inspection.

Poverty continued to influence children to migrate to urban areas for work, increasing their vulnerability to exploitation, and to work as casual laborers, often with no safeguards against abuse or injury. Child labor continued in the informal sector and in hazardous work, including work as wheelbarrow boys and casual laborers. Children engaged in hazardous work in agriculture and fishing. Commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred (see section 6, Children). Some children worked in relatives’ homes and were vulnerable to involuntary domestic servitude or forced to engage in sexual activity in exchange for food, clothing, shelter, or school fees.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits employment discrimination and stipulates that every employer pay male and female workers equal pay for work of equal value. The law prohibits women working underground but places no other legal limitations on the employment of women. Workers may file legal complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace.

The government did not provide data on the enforcement of antidiscrimination provisions. Penalties for employment discrimination include fines and imprisonment and were, when enforced, sufficient to deter violations.

Discrimination in employment and wages occurred against women and persons with disabilities. Women generally received less pay than men for similar work. The nongovernmental Fiji Disabled People’s Association reported most persons with disabilities were unemployed due in significant part to discrimination by employers.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There was no official poverty-level income figure, but the minimum wage did not typically provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. The regulations stipulate all employers must display a written national minimum wage notice in their workplace to inform employees of their rights.

MEPIR’s Office of Labour Inspectorate is responsible for enforcing the minimum wage, but the inspectorate lacked capacity to enforce the law effectively. The Employment Relations Tribunal and the Employment Court adjudicate cases of violations of minimum-wage orders. Convictions for a breach of the minimum-wage law result in a fine, imprisonment, or both.

There is no single countrywide limitation on maximum working hours for adults, but there are restrictions and overtime provisions in certain sectors. The government establishes workplace safety laws and regulations.

The Occupational Health and Safety Inspectorate monitored workplaces and equipment and investigated complaints from workers. Government enforcement of safety standards suffered from a lack of trained personnel and delays in compensation hearings and rulings. Although the law excludes mines from general workplace health and safety laws, it empowers the director of mines to inspect all mines to provide for the health, safety, and welfare of employees. The Employment Relations Tribunal and the Employment Court decides compensation claims filed by the inspectorate on behalf of workers.

Unions generally monitored safety standards in organized workplaces, but many work areas did not meet standards, and the ministry did not monitor all workplaces for compliance. Workers in some industries, notably security, transportation, and shipping, worked excessive hours.

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