“In a country like PNG where the labour force is small to start with, it is difficult to make the voice of the worker heard,” said the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, John Paska.
There have been labour unions in Papua New Guinea since I963, but more than 30 years later finds only a small proportion of the paid workforce as signed-up members of a functioning union or staff association. This is a situation that disturbs John Paska
“The attitude of employers towards the unions is not serious, and injustices go unchecked. The continuing deregulation of labour over the last year has seen wages for unskilled workers go down to as low as 22 kina a week, while at the same time the devaluation of the currency and the high level of imports have caused prices to rise. Yet where is the effective opposition to this situation?”
The Public Employees Association, the PNG Teachers Association, the Transport Federation and the Communications Workers Union are the main unions in PNG. It is significant that conditions of employment in those areas are consistently better than, for example, for non-unionised shop workers, truck drivers, security guards or agricultural labourers. Of all the plantations in PNG, only the oil palm industry is unionised to any degree.
“This is the problem,” says John Paska. “We seem to be dominated by a get-rich-quick mentality which is as destructive as it is ineffectual at promoting widespread economic well-being. Despite impressive growth figures and profit margins, poverty is increasing. High interest rates mean that capital investment is beyond the reach of many, while crime and illegal activities are spreading. This is due to the contagious effect of trade liberalisation policies dreamt up abroad and transplanted into our fundamentally non-cash economy where big-man politics and an incompetent bureaucracy are quite unequal to the task of safeguarding the livelihood of the people.
”One of the solutions, according to John, is to strengthen the informal sector of the economy by promoting the growth of small-scale development in the rural areas. “Instead of taking the subsistence economy for granted as a sort of free safety-net, we should realise that it is our only hope. How long is it going to take us to learn the lessons of Bougainville? We should seriously promote all local enterprise. For example, the domestic market for fish should be developed and more businesses should be organised as co-operatives. This will give many more people the chance to earn the small amount of cash they actually need, which is out of their reach at present.”
This is not to ignore the plight of the formal sector, for which he also has a remedy to suggest. “If you are a worker, join a union. If you are an employer, start taking unions seriously for the positive benefits they can bring to the workplace.”