‘UNIONISTS, POLITICIANS HAVE SIDE STEPPED ISSUE’
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. Five Saturdays ago on the 16th of December a number of ATS staff stopped work without notice, left their place of work and went to attend an ATSET meeting. Because of their wrong actions they were stood down and given show cause letters when they tried to re-commence work a few hours later. Their union advised them not to accept their letters insisting that they come back to work without any consequences or acknowledgement of their illegal walkout. To put it simply the staff were wrongly advised not to take any responsibility for their illegal walkout. As a responsible entity ATS could not ignore this blatant disregard for fundamental work rules insisting that staff couldn’t pretend they had done nothing wrong by walking off their jobs without notice. These staff and their union FASA then encouraged other staff who had not walked off their jobs to support them in their striking picket line outside of the ATS premises. Ironically ATSET which had called the meeting broke its own rules by not only failing to notify management of the intended meeting seven days beforehand but it also failed to notify its own members who they had encouraged to suddenly abandon their positions on a busy day at our international airport causing numerous problems for all travellers. It should be noted that in the past these same workers have attended ATSET beneficiary meetings without any problems simply because they followed their own articles and gave ample notice of their intention to leave work to attend a meeting. This procedure is something that has been accepted and facilitated by management for years. This time around the accepted procedure was not followed. Subsequently the employment minister declared the workers actions illegal. A straightforward issue. This ladies and gentlemen is the simple and uncomplicated chain of events that has led to the situation today.
To simplify the issue even further I agreed to meet union officials as chairman a couple of days after the walkout and offered a solution to invite all strikers back to work on the condition they sign a letter drafted by the union that would say the workers had made a mistake by abandoning their work without notice and would not be terminated if they signed the letter and came back to work. We insisted on this to protect ATS and our international gateway from further harm.
Duty of management
The management and the board of ATS are duty bound to act in the best interest of the company at all times and that is why we insisted on this signed letter to ensure that another damaging and illegal stop work action did not reoccur in the future. The union officials I met agreed to this condition but a day later changed their mind and wrote to me saying they wanted an unconditional return to work for all the strikers. To put it simply they wanted to pretend that an illegal walk out never happened. The walkout had caught many by surprise, even the FTUC’s Felix Anthony who admitted he did not know anything about it. Nevertheless, this did not stop the FTUC and the sudden influx of hordes of opportunistic politicians to quickly exploit the situation and turn it into a political circus. It was apparent that politicians seized the perfect opportunity to build their political campaign platform during election year on the backs of misguided ATS striking workers.
An uncomplicated matter of an illegal walkout was rapidly turned into a political shenanigan where all sorts of unsubstantiated claims, false accusations, weak, concocted and unfounded allegations were made against the management of ATS culminating in a call for the removal of the CEO and Human resource manager.
To shift focus away from the simple issue of an illegal walkout the waters were muddied even further with calls by politicians and the FTUC for my removal as chairman as well. In fact, the issue was rendered so confusing by those taking advantage of this simple situation for their own political and power gain that the FTUC while calling for my removal in a recent statement also called on me to be part of a group that will find a solution to this impasse. An impasse that remains because the unions and politicians are encouraging and advising the workers not to admit their illegal walkout.
Just last week the FASA secretary Vili Finau and FTUC’s Felix Anthony emphatically admitted that they cannot give any guarantee that if the striking workers go back to work they will not illegally stop work again during working hours as they did five Saturdays ago. This is exactly the reason why ATS management wants the striking workers to sign the letter before resuming work – an admission of wrong now will reduce the chances of a repeat illegal walkout in the future. Any responsible entity anywhere in the world would have done something similar to protect their interest against such sudden and illegal stop work action that will in this case ironically affect the 49 per cent shareholders of the company as well.
It’s now also quite apparent that this is the very reason why the politicians and unionists are encouraging and manipulating the workers not to sign the letter because not only do they want to support more illegal walkouts that will hurt Fiji, its economy and ordinary Fijians but also because any admission of wrong will expose the unions and politicians for the wrong advice and assurances they have continued to give to the striking workers. So in essence they are saying further illegal walkouts are imminent whatever the situation. These sorts of irresponsible statements and illegal action will damage Fiji’s reputation as a tourist destination even further and possibly lead to fewer tourists meaning fewer jobs in the hotel industry. This is quite ironic when the FTUC and others who are championing and encouraging the illegal actions of the strikers claim to be the first and foremost entities that protect the jobs of ordinary Fijian workers.
It’s very alarming that the barrage of sanctimonious speeches by old school, table thumping, dramatic B grade acting screaming unionists at the march on Saturday called for virtues such as honesty and upholding of the law. This is simply and exactly what ATS has been saying from the start – uphold the law and be honest about what happened. Unfortunately, though the unions and politicians won’t let the innocent workers say they were misled. Because to do this would mean them losing the political traction they have manipulated out of this issue.
A political circus
The underlying dynamics of this so called ATS saga is simply politics. If you don’t believe me then just have a listen to speeches at the rally on Saturday. Instead of proposing to admit the illegal walkout and get ATS staff back at work ready for negotiations, the unionists excitedly and gleefully spoke of the “closing” down of Nadi and the imminent threat of “closing” down the country next. These scavengers of innocent workers spoke of how workers should vote in the elections and the need to change the government and the Prime Minister. What does this have to do with ATS?
Felix Anthony spoke about the injustice to ATS workers. What injustice? In fact, we have been especially generous in welcoming back the workers if they sign a simple letter saying they did not do the right thing by walking off their jobs during working hours. We have even given an assurance that none of these workers will be terminated. That is all. So why is it so difficult to do this? Incidentally the unionists will tell you that the workers have the right to walk off their jobs to attend a meeting. They are right, if this is done correctly as pointed out earlier. But in this case they did not follow their own procedures of notice and that is what made this walkout illegal. Ask them about this very point and they will try and bamboozle you with every bit of nonsense they can think of. They will talk of everything except the fact that they failed to give a seven-day notice before the stop work action.
In the build up to Saturday’s march that in essence supported an illegal walkout, three union claims seemed to take prominence. The first about COLA not being paid out for several years. The second about no pay increases. And the third about non-payment of dividends to ATSET. While ATS has been the employer of the choice in the western division because of its superior working conditions, we do conclude that COLA has been an ongoing issue simply because the unions have not been willing to negotiate in good faith with COLA conditions being accepted then rejected at a later date by the union. The claim about no pay increases is an outright lie with ample evidence of pay increases for many staff. And the third claim is not only a blatant lie but also requires an investigation of the highest order because more than five million dollars of ATS staff money is today unaccounted for. It was only after ATS clarified the union claims about lack of dividends since 2005 did the whole country know that something very fishy was going on at ATSET.
Last Friday ATSET secretary, Vili Finau, categorically told the media that the only dividend ATSET had received for its beneficiaries was around 556 thousand dollars received in 2016. We at ATS deny this and we are still adamant that more than 5.7 million dollars in dividends has been received by ATSET on behalf of ATSET staff beneficiaries since 2005.
We have called this press conference to furnish the media with the relevant shareholder dividend certificates to prove this. So the question remains, if only around 500 thousand was received by ATSET in 2016, what’s happened to the remaining 5.2 million dollars that was given to ATSET for its beneficiaries the staff of ATS since 2005?
Where is the money?
The continued politicisation of the ATS issue must not distract us from seeking public accountability. These dividends were for the workers who were ironically marching yesterday in protest of better conditions and pay.
It’s shocking that even after not being able to account for such a large sum of money ATSET secretary, Vili Finau, and FASA national secretary Vilikesa Naulumatua, are sweeping this missing 5.2 million dollar issue under the carpet and are refusing to comment further on this.
What are they afraid of?
What’s even more shocking is that the very politicians and unionists such as Felix Anthony who have encouraged and cajoled striking ATS workers to continue with their illegal actions have conspicuously side-stepped and evaded this issue of the missing workers’ money. They have not said a word about this. In fact, they very noticeably side stepped the issue at Saturday’s rally as well. This is highly irregular for a group of people that have supposedly been working in the interest of the striking ATS workers since day one.
Why are they not saying anything? What are they afraid of?
The ATS board will be seeking legal opinion on the possibility of reporting this matter to FICAC, the Police and calling for a national inquiry through Parliament. In the meantime, there is nothing stopping the workers who are the beneficiaries of ATSET from immediately demanding for a police inquiry into this most scandalous of affairs and put to task their officials and political supporters in order to find out what happened to their 5.2 million dollars. They must do so for themselves and their families. They must rightfully demand what is theirs.
And if Mr Vili Finau, Felix Anthony, other conniving unionists and the myriad of opportunistic politicians who have used and manipulated ATS workers so far cannot call for a prompt inquiry to find ATSET beneficiaries their money than they should hang their heads in shame and disgust for not protecting the interests of the workers they are supposedly supporting and resign from their respective posts immediately.
Below is the full statement by the Board Chairman of Air Terminal Services, Riyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, on the claims by ATSET secretary that dividends from 2007 to 2015 had not been paid.