Fiji: Young activists ready to take up the union torch

published 26 October 2021 updated 7 December 2021

Inspiring young educators to improve and develop trade union work in Fiji was the aim of a dedicated training event organised by the Council of Pacific Education (COPE) in October 2020.

COPE hosted a Youth Establishment and Leadership Training for Fijian Teachers’ Association (FTA) members from 16-17 October 2020 in Suva, Fiji. The capacity building provided participants with the skills to assume leadership roles in their union. This was financially supported by cooperation partners, i.e. the Australian Education Union, the Independent Education Union of Australia, the New Zealand Educational Institute Te Riu Roa and the New Zealand Post Primary Teachers' Association.

Eighteen young teachers from 15 FTA branches and 10 union leaders attended the two-day workshop., whose main objectives were to organise FTA Youth Representatives across the nation for effective communication and to establish an FTA Youth Wing Action Plan.

Key speakers, such as COPE General Secretary Govind Singh, UNICEF Pacific’s Education Specialist, Iosefo Volau, and COPE’s Women Coordinator/FTA Women Coordinator Nanise Kamikamica contributed and motivated the young representatives during the workshop.

Gender, SDGs, union renewal also addressed

The event also enabled the sharing of International Labour Organisation (ILO) core Conventions and of international policy frameworks on human and trade union rights. It enhanced the relationship and networking between FTA, COPE, the Education International Asia-Pacific (EIAP) office, and Education International’s headquarters.

Other discussions revolved around the issues of commercialisation and privatisation of education, gender equality, union campaigning, and youth’s role in union renewal.

Participants were also updated on the advancement of the Education 2030 Agenda at global, regional and national levels. They also received information about the role of teachers and their unions in implementing and monitoring the progress of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular SDGs 4, 5, and 8.

Young leaders voice their concerns and views

The workshop also provided the young leaders with an opportunity to voice their concerns and views about existing union operations, management, leadership and structures. This was valuable feedback, assisting the trade union renewal process within FTA. Participants were encouraged and motivated to continue working collectively as a union to campaign for their rights, responsibilities, and employment conditions.

According to COPE General Secretary, Govind Singh, COPE has been actively engaged in youth development programmes at national and regional levels for over a decade.

“Young people are, among others, one of the groups most at risk when it comes to employment access, equal opportunities and equal pay, limited access to social protection, and limited access to positions of leadership,” he reiterated. Singh also acknowledged that most unions in the region have an integrated approach and do not separate their members between youth and others.

While the only main separate group within COPE so far is the women’s network, the idea of a youth wing is progressing, he said.

2019 COPE Youth Conference

That concept of a youth wing emerged from the three-day Youth Conference held prior the 2019 COPE Triennial Conference. Singh stressed that participants at the time recommended that COPE:

  1. Establishes a COPE Youth Network within the COPE structure.
  2. Identifies national and international education programmes for youth union development. And that COPE allocates a suitable budget to support a COPE youth network and enhanced training programme.
  3. Urges affiliates and national trade union centres to implement programmes of positive action aimed at recruiting more youth into unions.
  4. Recommends that affiliates review their constitutions to ensure the enhancement of the representation and participation of youth members in the decision-making structures of their unions.

Therefore, COPE was strongly mandated to call on its Pacific affiliates to organise youth networks with targeted activities in the region.

“There is now an increasing appreciation that the youth represent a fundamental human capital not yet fully used. Benefiting from youth structures within the unions could indeed greatly help in organising and expanding membership.”

COPE General Secretary, Govind Singh

All barriers to young members’ involvement must be lifted

In relation to barriers that prevent young people from joining or taking up responsibilities in the union, Singh added that:

  • The political climate in the unions and the union culture may discourage would-be members.
  • The relationship between government and trade unions is misunderstood.
  • Peer pressure not to join trade unions is gaining momentum.
  • Employment terms and conditions have changed in the last 50 years.
  • Individual contracts presented by employers forbidding collective bargaining are increasing.
  • Social norms have created inter- and intra-generational and professional gaps.
  • There is a very poor outreach to youth and grassroot members regarding the basics of trade union and human rights and informing young people of the importance of collective agreements and the necessity of strong trade union membership.

He went on to highlight issues faced by young teachers, like poor working conditions, large class sizes, and employment contracts.

Unions in Fiji are doing their best to change or influence the situation despite the pressure to not join trade unions, he noted. They are urging the government to invest more in decent jobs for young people, allowing every young teacher to earn enough to live a decent life.

Young education unionists bring ideas, creativity and great energy

Singh also welcomed the fact that young activists are innovative and creative and can use new technologies and digital platforms: “Young people have the ideas, the creativity, and great energy to shape, renew, and revive strong, independent, and democratic teacher unions in the region. Young educators are full of hope, and, through the right training and support, they are problem-solvers and have a great potential to generate a positive social change and become strong union leaders.”

Further underlining that COPE called on its affiliates to organise national activities which includes youth and women, he said that COPE is advising the unions to implement the recommendations of the COPE Youth Conference.

“There is now an increasing appreciation that the youth represent a fundamental human capital not yet fully used. Benefiting from youth structures within the unions could indeed greatly help in organising and expanding membership,” Singh admitted.

He noted that Education International and its member organisations should become more responsive to the needs of youth. “This may well be a strong revival and renewal strategy for unions,” he added, insisting on the need to ensure that the percentage of youth members is reflected at all levels of decision-making and staffing in the union.