12 September, 2017. Samoa – There is a great need for people to better understand their legal rights when it comes to the workforce. This applies to workers and their employers.
According to Saina Tomi of the Samoa First Union, “There are many cases of unjustified dismissals, unpaid NPF deductions and unsafe worksites.”
Since its establishment in June 2015 through the support of First Union, New Zealand, the Samoa First Union has aimed to be the voice of fairness for the workers in Samoa’s private sector.
In an exclusive interview with Samoa Planet, Ms. Tomi said, “The reason as to why the Union was established in Samoa was because there was a need for fairness for the workers in Samoa.”
For employees that claim to have been victim to unfair treatment, the Samoa First Union acts as the mediator to initiate change or reparation for that employee, which in many cases is successful.
She said, “At the moment, there are still many workers that are being paid less than minimum wage, some had employers that did not approve their annual leave, and others had outstanding NPF deductions that were not paid by their employer.”
“When an employee comes to make a complaint, we always request their payslips and any other hard evidence of the unfair conduct. Usually, we will then contact the employer for an appointment time and speak with them about the issue.”
According to Ms. Tomi, the people of Samoa need to know their rights in the work place. She said, “Workers need to understand things like their payment rates, entitlements, deductions, annual leaves and redundancy pay, to name a few.”
Ms. Tomi insists that the Union does not accuse businesses or employers of foul play, unless there is evidence provided by the complainant. She also stated that SFU approaches employers with respect and humility to encourage favourable changes for their member.
“If an employer rejects a claim, we then move on to requesting a mediation session with the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Labour. If that is also unsuccessful, and there is no reparation on the employer’s part, the case then goes to the Court.”
According to Ms. Tomi, the majority of the Union cases are settled within the mediation sessions.
Before workers can be represented by the Union, they first have to register as a member. To date, there are over 1,000 registered members of the Samoa First Union throughout the country.
“We have had cases where female employees have requested for maternity leave from the employer but were turned away, or threatened to be terminated from the position. Legally, all female workers are entitled to six weeks paid maternity leave, and this is something some employers lie about.”
But according to Ms. Tomi, there are worse cases that she has come across. “Some of the employers and worksite supervisors hit the workers. There are supervisors that kick out people by their own authority. It really broke my heart when I saw a worksite that prohibited all employees from coming late, or else face instant termination. There are also cases where the supervisor embarrasses the employee in front of all the other workers.”
“We encourage our members to let us know of anything like that, because we will fight for the rights of our members. Hitting is abusive, and your day can be ruined by someone swearing at you or embarrassing you.”
Ms. Tomi says that sometimes the stories workers tell her are so extreme, it makes her emotional. “Sometimes workers will come and tell me their story, and then I have to call a timeout for myself. I just have to walk out and cry. Sometimes I say to myself, ‘I thought Samoa was a Christian country, but now look…it’s our own people that are making our people slaves.”
For the past few years, the Samoa First Union has also been campaigning for a rise in the minimum wage rate of $2.30 per hour, to $3.00, a feat that has been deemed impossible by many. However, Ms. Tomi noted that some big business names in Samoa have come on board to the change, by offering their workers $3.50 or more.
According to Ms. Tomi, it is vital information for all workers to be aware of their basic entitlements. She said, “The first thing I think workers should know is that they have rights. Some of the workers that come here think that they do not have a right to say anything to their boss. The other issue is workers not knowing that they are entitled for sick and annual leave.”
With a mountain of paperwork on her desk, Ms. Tomi said that the Union copes with only two full-time workers; herself as the Leading Organizer and Membership Co-ordinater and her colleague, Michael Afamasaga who is responsible for the upkeep of the SFU database and event organizing.
SFA is also aided by legal advisor, Unasa Iuni Sapolu, as well as a team of 10 N.U.S students that assist on a casual basis.
All private sector workers are welcome to join the Union, for more information or to join, visit their website: www.samoafirstunion.org/ or their Facebook page @SamoaFirstUnion.
Reporter with Samoa Planet.