Recently released data that 50,000 plus Fijians migrated for greener pastures in just 18 months is a shocking reality which the nation urgently needs to come to grips with.
“If the momentum continues it has the possibility to choke the economy,” warned Ministry of Finance permanent secretary Shiri Gounder, speaking at the TOPEX conference last week.
To address the issue, he suggested managing labour migration. However, the dimensions of this critical issue extend far beyond that of just losing skills and much needed expertise.
In 18 months we have lost close to 6 per cent of our population, most of them young people — many of whom may have no intention of returning as economically active citizens.
I see it as a worrying indictment of our failure as a nation to meet the needs and aspirations of our people, particularly the youth.
It is practically a vote of no confidence in the future of Fiji. This is the sobering reality that we need to contemplate. Statistics released at the conference by government officials show that 30,593 of this 50,000, went on work permits.
Some 15,872 left on student visas to study. Another 3,545 obviously migrated.
As a small island nation struggling to survive, can we afford to lose our young at such a rapid rate? Let alone its economic effects, the impact on our demographic dynamics itself will be tremendous.
A local parallel
On a minor localised scale we saw this happening in Vanua Levu in the last two decades as cane leases expired and the Northern economy plunged.
There was a huge exodus of people to Viti Levu in search of jobs and a secure future.
The depopulation was startling. In many rural communities only the elderly were left holding the fort while the younger members of the family left for Suva and centres in the West to look for fresh opportunities.
If the current high migration trend continues, we are likely to see a similar picture emerge on a national scale.
The Ministry of Finance is instituting a survey to determine the economic impact of this in terms of human resources and skills.
In my view, this is akin to putting the cart before the horse.
The government needs to look far beyond to address the ‘push factors’ that are driving our young away from the country in search of a better life elsewhere. It cannot stop people from leaving. It needs to address the root causes of the outmigration in a holistic manner.
So what are the causes? Topping the list are factors such as:
• escalating cost of living
• rising poverty levels
• pathetically low wage rates
• lack of job opportunities
• inadequate social protection
•poor living standards and lack of decent affordable housing
•the deteriorating state of our health services, to name a few.
The UN Resident Coordinator Dirk Wagner, one of the speakers at the TOPEX conference, drew attention to these problems when he pointed out that Fiji was lagging behind in its commitment to two key Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 8&9.
These relate to:
• the promotion of sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth
• full and productive employment and decent work for all, and
•sustainable development of infrastructure
Fiji needs close to $900m a year to achieve infrastructure related SDGs and climate change mitigation alone, he said. I
believe Fiji also needs a sincere commitment to achieving these goals — something that the Coalition Government has so far failed to demonstrate.
The increase in VAT to 15 per cent has fuelled further social distress by raising living costs and worsening inflationary trends.
While living costs have soared, wages and salaries have not been increased as promised. Welfare payments and pensions remain inadequate to meet rising household expenses.
Income disparities between the rich and the poor continue to widen under policies that favour the well to do in society.
Instead of giving urgent priority to addressing these challenges, most ministers have been hopping overseas at every opportunity, collecting huge sums in travel allowances and having a grand time.
They have been quick to increase their own salaries and party funds while demanding austerity from the man on the street.
Worse still, all this was done surreptitiously without specific reference to such payments in the 2023/24 Budget or even in Parliament.
Lack of accountability and transparency
Also worrying are:
• a continuing lack of accountability and transparency
• lack of respect for the rule of law
• failure to provide a level playing field and fair opportunities for all. On the business front, the Coalition Government has been criticised for granting tax holidays, while it increased corporate tax for other companies.
It faces serious allegations of funnelling State funds to organisations headed by family members and cronies.
One year has gone and we still don’t have legislation on a code of conduct for holders of high public office and on access to information.
How can the government claim to be accountable or transparent if these two crucial constitutional requirements for good governance are not actioned?
FijiFirst did not do so for eight years. The coalition is prolonging it further.
Access to justice Denial of access to justice and the administration of justice are other crucial matters of concern.
Justice is still denied in the tragic case of the ferris wheel accident in Suva five months ago which ultimately led to two deaths and caused serious injuries to two others.
The two surviving victims have received no assistance to obtain specialised medical attention or compensation despite the seriousness of their injuries.
The minister concerned has still to make public the report on the accident. He keeps fobbing it off with one excuse or another, raising speculation as to what is afoot. It forces one to ask: Does anyone care about the ordinary people?
Equally disturbing is the fact that the Coalition Government has done nothing to rectify the unconstitutional appointments to high judicial offices despite strong criticism from opposition parties and the Fiji Law Society.
Likewise, the case of the Chief Registrar who pleaded guilty to a charge of drunken driving, but was not convicted because the magistrate worried he could lose his job! We get constant platitudes from the government on good governance and inclusivity, but when you write to the ministers on issues of concern, there is no response.
Not even an acknowledgement. What you do get is belligerence and personal abuse.
The very fragile nature of the 3-party coalition itself projects political instability which is sapping much needed investor confidence, and proving to be a real obstacle to growth and job creation.
Some may see this as a rather harsh indictment of the current government, but so is the stark reality of losing 50,000 Fiji citizens in the past 18 months with 23,000 plus leaving so far this year. Isn’t something seriously wrong?
•MAHENDRA P. CHAUDHRY is a former prime minister of Fiji and is also the leader of the Fiji Labour Party. The views expressed in this article are his and not necessarily of this newspaper.