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Fiji unions hit back at Aussie businessman

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By Joe Yaya and Phil Thornton

© USP Journalism Programme

SUVA: Suva's deputy mayor and national assistant secretary of the Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC), Diwan Shankar, today slammed Australian businessman Mark Halabe for statements he made in The Australian newspaper just five days after the coup.

Halabe was quoted in the paper as saying that the end of the Chaudhry government would benefit Fiji economically.

A furious Shankar told Pacific Journalism Online that Halabe's comments were "insensitive" and "inappropriate" considering Chaudhry was still held captive.

He also said the FTUC was considering asking international consumer groups to organise boycotts of Halabe's products.

"I'm surprised at these comments from an Australian who's enjoyed Fiji tax concessions for 13 years," Shankar said.

"This is the same man who recently accompanied Mahendra Chaudhry to Australia to gain concessions for his industry yet just days later while Chaudhry is a hostage, he's meeting with his captors and publicly saying it's good for business."

Shankar said it was ironic that Halabe as an Australian was telling Fijians who should be Prime Minister.

"Why doesn't he manufacture in Australia --- he's here because he's got an unlimited supply of cheap labour," said Shankar.

The trade union leader said that if business people don't like what democracy delivers they should realise that you can't change it with guns.

In reply to these accusations, Halabe told Pacific Journalism Online that he regretted having said this to the Australian media.

"It is unfortunate that it was reported in the media. I regret it very much," he said.

Halabe commended Chaudhry as a "hard working prime minister, focused on getting Fiji moving on into the future."

As president of the Fiji-Australian Business Council, Halabe added that it was sometimes frustrating for council members and him to accept some of the policies of the Chaudhry administration.

"For instance, the loss of the tax-free status, the rice-quota system, the rearrangement of work permits, the banking review to implement bank charges, the Credit Act that was supposed to be changed but wasn't," he said.

"It's been very very hard for the government to change it's mind once it made a decision on changes to policies."

Meanwhile, job losses that have hit the country have been in the hotel industry, garment industry and the sugar industry.

The European Union in a message conveyed to the commander of the interim military government warned that it would stop buying sugar from Fiji if rebel leader George Speight or any of his members were included in a new civilian government.

Fifty per cent of the sugar produced in Fiji is sold to the European market, amounting to two-thirds of the gross sugar revenue of about $FJ200 million.

If the sanction on buying Fiji sugar goes ahead, it would directly affect around 200,000 people who depend entirely on the industry for their livelihood.

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