The former president of the Fiji Pensioners Association, Fred Archari, will soon be leaving for Australia but will remain a member of the association. He talks to DORINE NARAYAN about the association, its roles, what it has achieved and what it hopes to achieve in the future for the members.
TIMES: Can you tell us about the Fiji Pensioners Association and its roles?
ARCHARI: According to the Constitution, we promote and protect and the interest of the members the pensioners and their spouses and children directly or indirectly relating to or affecting their pension benefits.
The Constitution allows anyone who receives pension benefits from any source to become members of the association and to ensure that they get their benefits is our job.
TIMES: In what ways has the association progressed since it started in 1973?
ARCHARI: The number of people who have become members of the association has grown immensely.
We started with 50 members but today the membership has gone to almost 1900. Since we started, there have been several negotiations which were fruitful.
In 1978 we negotiated successfully with the government for COLA (Cost Of Living Adjustment) to be paid to pensioners whenever it is paid to civil servants on the same rate as applicable to civil servants.
This has been done over the years and is the practice now.
Before, pensioners were having 40 per cent of their pension money paid to spouses and dependents but now the spouses and dependents are receiving 60 per cent of the pensioners' money.
The changes were made in 2000 after a submission was made by the association.
The pensioners had been paying income tax on their pension but the association successfully negotiated with the Government to give total exemption to all the pensioners.
This was accepted initially for local pensioners only and in 1989 we got the Government to agree to give total tax concession to pensioners living abroad as well.
Previously, we were not given any office to operate from but now we have this office with the kind courtesy of the Public Service Commission.
TIMES: What are some of the things that have yet to be achieved by the association which it had been pushing for?
ARCHARI: It is not very easy for the association to achieve a lot of things because we are not a trade union but at the mercy of the Government.
I think, generally, the Government has been quite receptive to our requests.
We are looking forward to have free medical benefits such as drugs for the members.
We made a written submission to the previous government and Cabinet was to have come back to us on it but until today, they have not done anything and it seems we really have to press for it.
In the area of transportation, we are asking the Government to give the pensioners some concessions.
At the moment, the members are paying full fare on public vehicles.
We are not asking for members to be exempted from the whole fare but just asking to give us some concessions.
We want this to be legislated in the Land Transport Authority Act.
We had also made a submission for this but it was not successful.
In other countries, pensioners receive a number of concessions which are very low compared to ours.
All Fiji National Provident Fund pensioners should be given COLA on pension benefits because at the moment they are not getting it.
We want 100 per cent benefits to be awarded to the spouses or their dependents when a pensioner dies.
At present, 75 per cent of civil service pensioners are receiving pension benefits below $8840 per annum and this amount is below the poverty threshold.
Pensioners should not be denied the COLA given by the Government.
We insist that all pensioners should be given COLA like other civil servants. This has been a long standing policy of the Government.
Civil servants are getting their COLA on the salary they get and pensioners are getting the benefits on the pension amount they contributed.
Most of the pensioners get retired on a low salary and therefore their pension is low.
TIMES: How has the negotiations with the Government been like in terms of increasing pensions with regards to COLA?
ARCHARI: There are some outstanding COLA benefits that have not been given to the pensioners as yet and we have made a submission on this to the interim Finance Minister and hopefully they are looking into it.
TIMES: What were some of the obstacles faced by the association and how did you manage to overcome them?
ARCHARI: The obstacles were faced with some of the things we could not achieve and this was based on the economic situation in the country.
It was hard to keep in touch with all the pensioners because they are scattered all over the country.
In the old days we had teachers and doctors especially going out to the outer islands and rural places for long periods of time and it was really hard to keep in touch with them and hard to get them to come forward and become members.
Another difficulty we faced was transport the shipping and airstrip services to the outer islands was not very efficient and they were major obstacles in us getting hold of more members and updating the present ones.
So it took a lot of time to even get the members to receive their pension benefits. When our members leave for places in the interior places when they retire, we did our best to ask them to come back but this did not always happening. But despite all these, we still tried to gather as many members as possible.
TIMES: What areas would you like the Government to look into in future to help contribute to the progress of the association?
ARCHARI: We have asked the Government to give us a suitable site where we can build our headquarters.
We have already made an application to the Lands Department for an area at Nasese and it is a part of the parliamentary complex being developed.
The Government has shown some interest in it but they have to get back to us on it.
Second, we want 100 per cent pension benefits to be given to the spouses or dependents or members.
I don't see a problem in that. At present, they are being given only 60 per cent and this 60 per cent is further reduced by 12.5 per cent VAT.
It is not fair on the Government to follow this policy.
TIMES: How has the response from the members been like since you took up the post?
ARCHARI: The response from the members has been great since I came in.
Their support had given me great encouragement to continue with the association.
The confidence the members had in me has been clearly shown with me being their choice for rep for the past 12 years.
They wanted me to continue but the circumstances have changed now.
I have to leave to spend some time with my children in Australia.
TIMES: How long have you been with the association and what has been your experience of working in such a field?
ARCHARI: I have been with the association for 12 years and it was my part-time job.
I was a divisional planning officer for the Ministry of Rural Development.
I was vice-president of the association and was selected president in 1995.
The experience has been very rewarding and whatever I have achieved for the association has been very satisfying. It gives me a good feeling to know I was able to help the pensioners' quality of life.
It is more like a voluntary organisation because some of the people in the organisation such as the treasurer and secretary are not being paid for their efforts.