Mar 08, 2021 Last Updated 9:51 PM, Mar 7, 2021

Fiji's PS Konrote resigns

The most senior civil servant in Fiji’s Ministry of Economy, Makereta Konrote, has resigned from the post.

Konrote’s resignation comes at a critical time, as Fiji’s Minister of Economy remains in Singapore for medical treatment, and economic activity continues to take a battering from COVID-19 related border closures and Tropical Cyclones Yasa and Ana.

Minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum has been conducting budget consultation sessions over the Internet from Singapore, with the budget due to be delivered mid-year.

The February economic updated released by the Reserve Bank of Fiji this week stated declines in visitor arrivals (-98.5%), electricity (-13.7%) and mahogany (-98.7%), although there were production increases for cement, gold, pine, woodchips and sawn timber.

The Reserve Bank says Value Added Tax (VAT) collections plummeted by 25.2% and new lending by commercial banks for consumption purposes fell by 39.3%. Commercial banks’ new lending for investment declined by 47.2% in January.

The Bank says labour demand remains week, with job vacancies falling by 82.6% in January.

Government recorded a net deficit of $545.8 million (or 5.5% of GDP) in the first six months of the 2020-21 financial year. At the end of January 2021, government debt stood at 73.2% of GDP. 19% of this was external debt.

A government statement today quoted Konrote, who has been at the Ministry for 18 years and PS for five, as saying: "It has been a great privilege to work on behalf of my country. I want young people, particularly young women, who are considering entering the Civil Service to know that it can be a deeply fulfilling career of service to your fellow Fijians."

"I'm confident that I'm leaving the Ministry in the good hands of dedicated Fijians who are firmly focussed on our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic."

Shiri Gounder, the Head of Fiscal Policy and former Head of Treasury will act as the Permanent Secretary for Economy from 16 March 2020.

Fiji’s Minister for Economy says there will no civil service pay cuts. Speaking from Singapore during an online budget consultation, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum said the government’s wage bill is $1.1 billion (US$500 million) and the sector employs some 30,000 people.

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Fiji’s Minister for Trade, Commerce and Tourism, Faiyaz Koya says the newly launched Pasifika Heartbeat app is “a great example of how Fijians are exploring opportunities to make information services available to Fijians.”

“The health and medical services has become a leading sector where technology is playing a very important role - with the use of telemedicine and other app services. In fact, the pandemic has sped the digital transformation of healthcare. It has also boosted innovation in how patients can receive and consume health care services,” Koya said.

The Pasifika Heartbeat app is a digital repository of health-related information, including the geo-location of public and private health clinics, pharmacies, and hospitals.

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Investment Fiji has launched its new Fiji Trade Expo Series, with the first expo focused on marketing Fiji’s premium products to New Zealand, Fiji’s third largest export destination for merchandise trade. Other expos in the series will target Australia, USA, India, Europe, China, Japan, Indonesia and UAE. Fiji’s top exports to New Zealand are dalo, medicaments, garments, kava and fresh vegetables. New Zealand is also Fiji’s 3rd largest source of foreign direct investment in terms of both number and value of projects. 

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Research undertaken by the World Bank Group concludes removing non-tariff trade barriers could help countries maximise gains for women-owned businesses in the Pacific Islands, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste.  Targeted policies – aimed, for example, at promoting paperless and automated custom systems – could help maximise the benefits of trade for women, who currently face greater challenges than men, the World Bank says.

About 1,500 cross-border trading firms took part in the survey, which showed that women-led firms experience greater obstacles. Fewer women are represented in trade associations and they are consulted less regularly when it comes to matters related to border processes. Women are also dependent on more flexibility in doing business due to more family obligations.

The Acting Permanent Secretary for Local Government, Shaheen Ali says  approximately $30 million has been given as concessional loans to 5,438 micro, small and medium enterprises as part of government’s COVID-19 relief efforts. These loans have been extended mainly in the agriculture, wholesale and retail, food and hospitality, transportation, manufacturing and other service driven sectors.

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A number of Fijian businesses continue to sign under the Fijian Grown logo. One of the latest is farm and floriculture outfit, Golden Cowrie Complex.

Officials from Fiji’s Labour and Immigration departments and Goundar Shipping are reportedly meeting today to discuss the status of three Filipino seamen who claim they have been abandoned by their employer, and are owed back pay and fares home.

The three, who have been asked to be called by their nicknames ‘Raffy’, ‘Ace’ and ‘Sabu’ were all recruited by Goundar Shipping, which runs interisland shipping services. Raffy  is an engineer and has been in Fiji since 2019. Sabu, also an engineer and Ace, a deckhand, arrived in March last year.

They say on February 12th, with the permission of their captain they left their vessel, the Lomaiviti Princess IX to speak with a representative of the International Transport Federation in Lautoka about how they could arrange passage home at the end of their contracts. But on their return to the vessel two days later, they were informed their contracts had been terminated and that they could not rejoin the vessel.

“They abandoned us in Ellington [Wharf] and we had nowhere to go,” said Luffy.

“We had to sleep in the street because Ellington Wharf and the town is a long way [apart]. So there was nowhere to go. At that time it was already ten in the evening so no more taxi, no more bus. And that’s the problem, the curfew, what if the police caught us? That would be another problem for us. So we waited for the morning and then came to Suva.”

“We don’t have any money, any food,” Ace added.

“When we can to Suva we came directly to the office [Goundar Shipping] to ask what was happening…what’s their plan. And they just said, no more, you’ve already deserted.”

“And they said, they don’t care us anymore,” said Sabu.

“I told the president of the company sir if you are going to terminate us, then you should send us home. They said you find your own way to go home. We can’t do anything.”

When Islands Business called Goundar Shipping boss, George Goundar for a comment he told us, “I don’t have time for that nonsense,” adding that the company has a contract and would let the government handle the matter before ending the call.

Raffy denies he has a contract, saying it expired six months after his arrival, in September 2019. He says since then he has been working with a valid work permit, but no contract.

The men are now being cared for by community members, but their future remains uncertain.

“We don’t know what’s ahead tomorrow,” Luffy said. “We’re living in different place[s] but it’s very hard.  We cannot stay in one place, one family is living there so we cannot stay there for good, so [we move] to another place again.

“Goundar has the power.”

The men all remit their earnings home.

Luffy supports his siblings, “[I am the] breadwinner for my brother and sister. We are living in one house. The problem now is how I can pay the rent.”

Ace supports his partner and child. “Right now I can’t support my son, because my son is just two years old. So every time when I get paid here, I send the money back home to buy some stuff, milk, for my baby, but now, I can’t do nothing  because I have no job here and even  now we don’t have enough money to support ourselves. So that’s why it’s very hard.”

Sabu supports both his parents and his sister, who is still studying. “We just want to get what is right for us.”

The men are concerned about their reputations. “We don’t know if we are blacklisted to other companies now because we have this trouble,” said Ace.  “Our career is also at risk. That’s a big problem if we get blacklisted.”

They are also concerned about how the costs of returning home will be covered, for flights, quarantine both in Manila and their home island, and COVID swab tests.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation claims there are more than 20 Filipino seafarers who have been “tricked” by Goundar Shipping “into flying to Fiji to operate and maintain its fleet of passenger and cargo ferries with promises of decent wages and conditions.” ITF Inspector Sarah Mcguire, who is based in Australia, said Goundar is refusing to send them home as agreed.

 “When they arrived, the company informed the seafarers that they would be paid 60-70 percent less than what they were promised,” she added. Raffy, Ace and Sabu make similar allegations about a discrepancy between the salary promised in the contract they signed in the Philippines and what they received once in Fiji.

Human Rights at Sea, an international NGO which has been working to highlight the matter remains concerned. "When speaking with the seafarers through those humanitarians providing direct welfare support in Fiji, it is clear they have been grossly let down by their employers and cast aside with little if no consideration as to the impact the loss of employment and wages will have on them and their families. Unfortunately, this is an all too familiar story. Fortunately, it has attracted international press attention without the case being fully hidden behind the corporate veil,” said Chief Executive Officer, David Hammond.

The Reserve Bank of Fiji Governor says Fiji could see a marginal economic recovery if borders open towards the end of the year. Ariff Ali says economic recovery will depend on fiscal support provided by the government in the 2021-22 national budget. “On a positive note, the RBF’s December Business Expectations Survey shows that overall business confidence has improved slightly from six months ago, possibly reflecting the successful containment of the virus locally, businesses adjusting to the new norm and concrete steps towards immunisation across the globe,” Ali says. He anticipates inflation will rise due to shortages as the result of Tropical Cyclone Ana and associated flooding. The full statement is available here.

Two companies listed on the South Pacific Stock Exchange (SPX) have suspended trading. Fiji Television (FTV) has suspended trading as it must recall and re-issue its financial statements for the financial year ending June 30, 2020.  In a statement today, it says “subsequent to the release of its Financial Statements…the FTV Board had undertaken certain internal investigations. The investigations identified some account adjustments which relates to prior years.”  The accounts adjustments are now being reviewed by an external auditor. Meanwhile Fijian Holdings (FHL), the parent company of Fiji Television has also suspended trading and expect its half yearly financial results to be delayed.

The IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, is to support Fiji’s government to design an early childhood care services policy. A 2019 IFC report found that each year, employers are losing an average of 12.7 work days per employee due to parents juggling responsibilities at work and home, costing businesses an average of FJ$550,000 (US$273,000) each year in lost productivity, or about FJ$1,000 (US$497) per employee. The cooperation agreement will also see the introduction of a licensing and inspection system for childcare providers.

The Financial Intelligence Unit has warned Fijians against unregulated cryptocurrency trading and pyramid selling schemes. FIU Director Razim Buksh said instances of unregulated cryptocurrency trading and illegal pyramid selling schemes have been referred to them. They are being aggressively promoted on social media.

Fiji Crop and Livestock Council trustees have been elected for the next five-year term of office. They are: John Deo, Fiji Coconut Farmers Association; Josua Raitilava, Fiji Ginger Farmers Association; Filimoni Kilawekana, Fiji Dalo Farmers Association, and Simon Cole, Fiji Pig Farmers Association.

Thunderstruck Resources has appointed Rob Christl as Vice President Business Development and Investor Relations. Thunderstruck anticipates drilling to commence in June at its Liwa gold and silver project in Fiji.

The Fiji Banks and Finance Sector Employees Union has confirmed Aunendra Singh as its national secretary, and Faizal Hussain as president. Singh says COVID-19 had led to reduced hours, pay cuts and reduced recruitment in the sector, and as a union they need to find collective solutions to protect workers.

Pacific Island nations risk being left behind in the race to decarbonise the shipping industry, despite leading the way on this issue at the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

Dr Peter Nuttall, who is the Scientific and Technical Advisor for the Micronesian Center for Sustainable Transport at the University of the South Pacific, says change is happening at an almost “terrifying speed, it’s a global revolution” and the Pacific is not keeping up.

“Ten years ago when I started building this global research program, we were told there would be hydrogen engines by 2050; there are hydrogen ships today, there will be mainstream hydrogen ships operating by 2030. There will not be fossil fuel ships – that is the speed with which the industry and technology is moving. There is a huge risk we will get left behind, an enormous risk that we will get left behind.”

Shipping contributes some 3% of the world’s annual carbon emissions, and Dr Nuttall warns that the Pacific will be left paying carbon levies and fuel taxes if we can’t keep step with the transformation the industry is already undergoing.

Since 2015, the Marshall Islands has been leading a Pacific crusade at the IMO—emboldened by the fact that 12%  of the world’s ships sail under the Marshallese flag, and spurred by the vision of the late Marshallese foreign minister, Tony deBrum, to cut shipping emissions.

“I think they’ve done a brilliant job of displaying their leadership,” says Dr Nuttall. “They’ve used their leadership to coagulate a coalition of high ambition countries to really try and drive this agenda of decarbonisation at the IMO.”

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