TONGA STRIKE ENDS, CONSTITUTION REVIEW EYED

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By Pesi Fonua

NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Sept. 4) – The Tongan government has agreed to the pay demands of thousands of striking public workers and will consider setting up a commission to review the country’s constitution with a view to allow a more democratic form of government for Tonga.

The urgent need for a Royal Commission on Democratic Reform was one of the key concerns that the striking Public Service Association (PSA) attached to a Memorandum of Understanding with government that was signed by all parties shortly before midnight last night.

The signing of the agreement by Hon. Fielakepa for Government, Maliu Takai for the Interim Committee for Dissatisfied Civil Servants, and the Facilitator, Dr Sitiveni Halapua, ended the national strike as it entered its seventh week.

[PIR editor’s note: Sitiveni Halapua, the Tongan-born director of the Pacific Islands Development Program at the East-West Center in Hawaii, has been instrumental in recent years in bringing together estranged political leaders in Fiji, using the traditional Polynesian approach of "Talanoa" – informal dialogue at the highest level.]

The issue of wage increases is addressed in the Memorandum of Understanding as follows:

"All civil servants will resume duties at their respective work places at 8:30 a.m. on Monday 5 September 2005. 2. The approved salary scale as at 30 June 2005 is to be implemented by Government, effective from 1 July 2005, in the following manner:

That the new salary scale will be paid in two (2) tranches as follows:

The signing was done in private at the Prime Minister's Office before the parties went to the Television Tonga studios for a press conference, which concluded after midnight.

Getting Cabinet to consider the need for a Royal Commission was a major victory for the PSA, which, amid accusations of politicising its demand of wage increases of 60 percent to 80 percent, was adamant that the root cause of the salary disparity within the public service was Tonga's political system.

At a special meeting on Saturday, the Tongan Cabinet met to approve a five-point attachment to the original memorandum, which had been agreed to in principle the previous day.

While government did not agree to an immediate review of the Constitution, it did accept that this is a serious concern of the strikers.

The fifth clause of the attachment to the memorandum is an agreement that the Cabinet negotiation sub-committee will submit those serious concerns to Cabinet for "due consideration".

This means that Cabinet will look at the PSA's call "that a Royal Commission be established immediately to review the Constitution to allow a more democratic form of Government to be established; and for the Royal Commission to report back to government and the interim committee on 31 December 2005."

But a Cabinet decision will still have to be made before it can go ahead.

At the press conference, Hon. Fielakepa explained that there is a law that regulates the establishment of Royal Commissions and under this law the findings of a Royal Commission will have to go to the king.

The Minister of Labour, Hon. Feleti Sevele, who was a member of the second government negotiating team, commented that a Royal Commission on Democracy could take the process further. It might provide an opportunity for Tonga to move ahead with a parliamentary motion that calls for a national referendum on a proposal for all members of parliament, including cabinet ministers and nobles' representatives, to be elected by the people.

In their September 3 attachment to the memorandum, the Public Servants Association also won Cabinet approval to stop the Ministry of Education from transferring teachers from Tonga College to the Ministry of Education Administrative office as a result of the industrial action. The Minister of Education was also requested to give due consideration "in the spirit of reconciliation" to the students who were involved in the strike.

When asked if there were discussions on the question of establishing a union for workers in Tonga, the Minister of Labour said that it would come next.

"There is a law with regard to establishing a union but it hasn't come into force because there is a need for a regulation."

He said the advantage of having a union was in order to regulate strikes.

September 5, 2005

Matangi Tonga Magazine: www.matangitonga.to/home/

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