Members of the communities from around Savusavu accessed information and services related to their social, legal and economic rights through the REACH mobiles service delivery. (Photo: UNDP)

The tents neatly arranged in the corner of a school ground were filling up with members of the communities from around Savusavu, located on the south coast of Fiji’s second largest island Vanua Levu. They were keenly engaging with staff from government and civil society organizations (CSOs) providing public services and information. 22-year-old Osea Manoa and his friends were among those who turned up to explore the opportunities and services from a nearby community in Naidi village. Osea sat with Police Officer. A while at another desk, a few retired citizens were eager to find the information on where to provide their expert volunteer work.

Others came to seek assistance to deal with the challenges they faced, including the difficulties related to employment and workers’ entitlements. Makereta (not real name) was one of them. She received the professional support she desperately needed to deal with a problem she was facing.

Makereta’s story:

Makereta was laid off from a restaurant in the nearby town where she had worked for the last four years. When the restaurant started to lose customers due to the impact of COVID-19 on business and the economy, Mareketa was fired without notice.

As a young, widowed, single mother of two, Makereta lives in a house provided by the Fiji Housing Assistance Relief Trust (HART Homes). While her reduced rent is FJ$30 per month, the FJ$50 per month she receives through the public social welfare scheme is not enough to feed and support her family.

She was relieved when she learned of the Fijian Government’s COVID-19 relief programme with the Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF) to support those who lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19. The Government/FNPF COVID-19 scheme enables FNPF members to make early withdrawals against their savings, and the Government subsidizes the balance where the member’s available funds fall short of withdrawal limits.  Makereta knew that she and her employer had been contributing to her FNPF account for over four years and was counting on this assistance.

When Makereta approached her former employer to get the requisite signature under the scheme, her former employer refused to sign. Confused as to why and what she could do, she went to the Ministry of Employment, Productivity and Industrial Relations but was told she had to take it up with the FNPF. She followed up with the FNPF and that’s when she saw her account balance for the first time: the total amount in her FNPF account was only FJ$150. Stunned, she could not believe this was all she had to show after toiling for 12 hours a day over the past four years.

Thinking back, Makereta recalled her employer had intentionally kept her off the books – she was given a different name to use when signing the daily timesheet and she was paid weekly in cash using a small brown envelope. She realized she had no written employment contract.  All of these should have been alarm bells.  Immediately, she realized why her former employer refused to sign off on her FNPF COVID-19 Withdrawal Scheme form: despite assurances, her employer had not been making the FNPF contributions but instead pocketed the money.

While the employer’s behavior is illegal, Makereta only discovered it while attempting to access a key economic relief mechanism offered by the Fijian Government to support those affected by the COVID-19 downturn, making it particularly despicable.  Unfortunately, Makereta is not alone. Similar cases were brought by members of communities seeking support in various outreach sessions across the country.

In the midst of her despair and anguish, Makereta met a lawyer from a civil society organization during the service delivery sessions taking place in her neighborhood. She received legal counsel from the lawyer and her case has been taken up through the referrals system developed between CSOs and government. She is hoping for a positive outcome of her case.

Osea Manoa (left) and his friends were among those who turned up to explore the opportunities and services from a nearby community in Naidi village. (Photo: UNDP)

The ILO reports that more than one in six young people have lost their jobs since the pandemic began and those that are still at work have seen their hours reduced. Unemployment for young people, particularly young women, has increased and at a faster pace than for prime-age adults.

Women are overrepresented in the service sectors hit by the pandemic, such as retail, accommodation and food services, and domestic work, and face barriers to re-enter labour markets due to gender dis­crimination and precarious working conditions, including having to balance low wages against increased care burdens at home, the opportunity costs of working – in addition to increased incidences of violence against women in homes since the pandemic hit.

However, 4 billion people – accounting for 55 percent of the world population, have no or inad­equate social protection to start with and only 22 percent of unemployed workers were covered by unemployment benefits.

To address the socio-economic challenges people are facing following the COVID-19 related restrictions in Fiji, the service delivery programme has refocused their priority on the most vulnerable and marginalized populations in this crisis. The services are being brought to informal and underprivileged settlement communities in Fiji’s suburban area, aiming to reach the most vulnerable to COVID-19’s health and socio-economic impacts. 

The public service delivery programme is called ‘Rights, Empowerment and Cohesion (REACH) for Rural and Urban Fijians’, coordinated by Fiji’s Ministry of Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) with support from the Government of Australia.

The REACH project coordinates multiple public service providers from government agencies and CSOs, and sends teams of officers to communities to deliver the services right at community members’ doorsteps. Its integrated, mobile approach to awareness raising and service delivery addresses interlinked social, legal, economic issues Fijian citizens face.

Sanaka Samarasinha, UN Resident Coordinator for ten countries in the Pacific spoke to some of the service providers at the REACH service delivery tents. (Photo: UNDP)

Sanaka Samarasinha, UN Resident Coordinator for ten countries in the Pacific recently visited the REACH service delivery programme held in Savusavu, a small port town in Vanua Levu. Savusavu, well known as the ‘hidden paradise of Fiji’ - used to be one of Fiji’s hottest destinations for foreign tourists before the pandemic.

Speaking to some of the service providers and citizens accessing the services at the REACH service delivery tents, Mr. Samarasinha said, “Strengthening access to public services is one of the key responses to counter the social and economic impact of the pandemic the UN supports all over the world. Many people are unable to access basic services because of the remote geographical regions in which they live – that’s where we see the integral value of REACH. The REACH program provides a mechanism to get integrated services to those who would otherwise be at risk of being left behind.”

The REACH community service delivery model has been in operation in Fiji since 2015, with pilots undertaken in Samoa, Vanuatu and Tonga. The modality and composition of the REACH approach this year has been shifted to respond to COVID-19 pandemic.

Kevin Petrini, UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji Deputy Resident Representative a.i. said, “The REACH integrated, mobile service delivery approach was enabled to evolve by generous support from the Government of Japan and the Government of Australia. The approach has been so popular among both service providers and citizens accessing the services in those countries. The REACH model matches their needs in facing the impact of the pandemic.”

The services delivered in Savusavu town included basic health checkups, child protection and crime prevention awareness, consumer rights, rights of persons with disabilities, and social welfare schemes. Psychosocial counselling and reproductive health checkups were provided in separate space comfortable for personalized services and confidential support. 

The programme was implemented using a COVID-safe set up, ensuring proper hygiene protocols were in place including mandatory hand-washing, temperature screening and contact recording on entry, adherence to maximum group sizes and physical distancing requirements, in line with government rules.

After the consultation with the police officers at the service desk, Osea shared his future plan, “I want to become a police officer. Today, I obtained useful information and learned from the officers all the procedures that I need to follow for the recruitment.” Osea and his friends looked determined to take the steps towards their future careers.

Throughout the UN response, the guiding reference remains the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its central promise to ‘leave no one behind’. UNDP as technical lead on the UN framework for the immediate socio-economic response to COVID-19, continues to contribute to Fiji’s effort to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. UNDP supports the Fijian Government’s REACH programme with a focus on Goal 16 for peace, justice and strong institutions and Goal 5 for gender equality and empowerment of women and girls.

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