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 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.