Garment factory owners in Fiji are asking the government to exempt the sector from the new wage order. They are complaining that the recent government order to raise mininum wages for workers is making their business uncompetitive. They say brands are moving their orders elsewhere as revised wages have increased the cost of production in Fiji. This has forced factory owners to retrench workers. They are threatening more lay offs and shut downs if the government does not back track on wage hike.
Fiji's Reserve Bank also recently reported that the garment exports from the country slipped in the first quarter.
The new wage order, which came into force on the 1st July, was originally scheduled to be implemented from the 1st January. But the labour ministry agreed to six months extension under pressure from business lobbies. The wage hike covers nine industries that include garment, security, printing, building, road transport, saw milling and retail. Even after the raise, garment workers will remain the lowest paid in the country.
A large number of garment factories in Fiji are owned by suppliers from Australia and New Zeland who took advantage of massive tax incentives in the early 1990s offered by the local government to boost foreign investment.
Workers in the garment and security industries are the lowest paid in Fiji. Wages in Fiji's garment industry have comparatively remained low since early days. Currently, average wage of a garment worker in Fiji is below the national poverty line. The new wage rate of $1.38 per hour is significantly lower than other sectors. Compare this with the mining sector which will be paying $2.57 per hour for unskilled workers under new wage order.
Last month, the labour ministry launched an investigation into complaints that most garment factory owners were not complying with the new wage order.
The question is what should brands do in this situation? Should they leave the country and move orders to cheaper destinations? What stand should they take when their suppliers are lobbying with the government to keep the wages low? Suppliers cannot pay higher wages if brands are not willing to pay higher price. And why should brands pay a higher price when suppliers in Bangladesh, for example, are willing to offer much lower price for the same garment?