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Samoa's unions face long road

While academics argue collective bargaining and union power will strengthen the labour market in a post-COVID economy, local unionist Gatoloai Tili Afamasaga says Samoa has a long way to go. 

Gatoloai, who is the President of the Samoa Workers Congress, says the private sector is still underserved by a single small union run by part time volunteers whose primary focus is on teaching workers their rights, let alone leading them in collective bargaining for better conditions.

“There is a lot of work still to be done in the private sector, obviously,” she said.

“And because we only have one union it makes it a lot harder because the organisers have to work with so many different employers.”

The Samoa First Union, which is run by senior organiser Saina Tomi Setu, currently represents anyone who chooses to be a member from any part of the private sector. 

Ms. Setu says her work primary consists of explaining basic employment rights around hiring and firing, paid and unpaid holiday entitlements and ensuring employers pay their contributions towards the Samoa National Provident Fund (S.N.P.F). 

So negotiating improvements to working conditions across sectors or industries is still a faraway concept, Gatoloai said.

Meanwhile in the public sector, the structures are already in place between government and the Public Service Commission.

“So it’s a lot easier for public sector workers […] it’s just about ensuring those procedures are followed.”

But there is progress being made, she said. At the Samoa National Tripartite Forum, a group of government, employees and employer representatives, the union representatives can lobby employer representatives (like the Chamber of Commerce and Industry) over issues in a managed environment.

“We are getting somewhere and we are placing a lot of our hopes in the tripartite forum,” Gatoloai said.

“At least we can sit down, talk to employers and employers can go and discuss, without having to be confrontational about it.”

She emphasised that it makes “good sense” for worker and employers to be in frequent and earnest conversations about employment, especially as the labour market becomes more precarious under COVID-19.

Meaningful conversations around money, hours and entitlements can build better bonds between employee and employer, and even increase productivity.

“I think there is always good sense in getting the workers to discuss or at least getting workers to work with their bosses, discuss things that are close to their hearts and to say to them these are the kinds of things we need.

“Workers become more loyal to employers if they understand what is going on. Sometimes it will enable workers to do much more for their employers, without having to ask for fatter salaries.”

Gatoloai was the founding president of the S.W.C. in 2014 and has maintained the role ever since. 

In 2016 she was awarded the Krishna Datt Award for Excellence in Trade Unionism and Leadership in the Pacific.

She was speaking on the sidelines of the International Labour Organisations global summit on the world of work after COVID-19. 

During a panel discussion on what a post-COVID-19 work environment looks like, Associate Professor of Social Policy from Chung-An University Dr. Sophia Seung-Yoon Lee argued that there needs to be more collective bargaining, unionisation and solidarity among the workforce in the recovery.

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