By Erica Lee
According to the World Bank, external shocks over the past 12 months have resulted in an economic contraction of 19 percent in 2020 and a rise in unemployment to 27 percent – the most severe contraction in Fiji’s history.
These numbers are expected to rise given the resurgence of COVID-19 positive cases across Viti Levu and the restricted movement and closure of non-essential businesses since April 17th. Although Fiji is still battling wave 2 of the virus, the Fijian Government has encouraged the reopening of businesses and return of Fijians to jobs through the release of Protocols for COVID-Safe Business Operations, a set of measures designed to minimise the risk of COVID-19.
The protocols require employers to ensure all employees, customers and clients wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and must ensure a two-metre physical distance. Businesses must also set up hand washing stations and provide sanitizers, monitor the temperature of their employees and customers, monitor absenteeism and establish a dedicated isolation room/section to isolate suspected COVID-19 positive cases with referral pathways to the Health Ministry in place. Other requirements to reopen include the provision of transportation for staff using only company owned vehicles and the need for staff to have smartphones with the careFIJI app turned on for contact tracing purposes.
While some businesses have been able to comply with the protocols, the majority of businesses in Nadi, Lautoka, Suva, and Nausori remain closed and are struggling to meet many of the requirements.
Eseta Nadakuitavuki, President of the Women Entrepreneurs Business Council (WEBC) says her members have raised concerns that the protocols were quickly implemented by the Government without consultation with the private sector and the lack of clear communication on the hefty penalties.
“Whilst we understand the need for COVID-safe measures, many women-owned businesses fall under the SME and microenterprises categories and cannot afford the added costs of complying with the protocols or the penalties for non-compliance. We had hoped that businesses would have been given time to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) and given support with daily transportation for staff,” said Mrs. Nadakuitavuki
She added that the prolonged period of restricted movement had meant many of WEBC’s members have had little to no sales or income over the past eight weeks.
“The Council is also concerned about the impact the prolonged closure of businesses is having on families who are in dire need of assistance with food, rent and money for other utilities. A few of our members are already struggling to put food on their tables and it would be difficult for them to comply.”
Through Australian Government funding, the Fiji Women’s Fund has provided a Resilience Grant to support WEBC’s “Readiness to Reopen” project. The project aims to create awareness on the protocols, provide advice, and support members with the application and compliance process.
Through a small grants programme, WEBC will also call for expressions of interest from its members that may need help with purchasing PPEs and help with the cost of transportation. WEBC also intends to provide food rations for members that may need them.
Women entrepreneurs share experiences and advice on the protocols
Under its Economic Recovery and Reopening project, WEBC hosted a panel discussion on 17th June to create awareness on the Protocols for COVID-Safe Business Operations, provide practical advice on how to apply and the legal ramifications of non-compliance.
Panellists included President of Fiji Commerce & Employers Federation (FCEF) Sandeep Chauhan, women entrepreneurs Cathy Wong – Suva Physio Centre, Vera Chute – Value City (SP) Pte Ltd Fiji, Stella Tiko – Pepe & Pepe and Glenis Yee a partner at Munroe Leys law firm.
Physio Therapist Cathy Wong said entrepreneurs should not get easily disheartened by the application process.
“Despite being classed as an essential business, I had to submit my application three times before my business was approved to open. If we want to operate in these difficult times then we must be ready to do all that is needed,” she said.
She advises businesses to honestly submit as much information as possible no matter how small they thought it was.
Vera Chute, a medium-size business owner with 15 recycled clothing stores across Fiji employing close to 200 Fijians, said the process was not an easy one and many of her outlets remained closed.
“We have introduced many measures to minimise any risk such as the allocation of personal utensils for all staff, keeping staff separated in bubbles, spacing out items in the store and increasing cash registers in more locations around the store to avoid lines. We have increased the frequency of our cleaning in all outlets, regularly sanitize all company vehicles and have also taken the initiative to speak with all staff about the importance of vaccinations,” said Ms. Chute.
She added that Value City had adjusted its business model to incorporate online sales which would be introduced soon. She also raised her plea for the Ministry of Commerce, Trade, Tourism and Transport to consider some flexibility on the transportation requirements for staff saying it would be helpful if businesses could hire van services.
Lawyer Glenis Yee said there were concerns about the hefty penalties that businesses could face if in breach of the protocols. Penalties she said were the same regardless of the size of the business. She said that many businesses were anxious about the spot checks and confused about the appropriate statutory bodies with the authority to enter and shut down businesses deemed non-compliant.
Sandeep Chauhan said FCEF would continue to lobby with the government on private-sector-led solutions to help restart the economy. He said the Federation was ready to support businesses through the process and encouraged business owners to take care of their mental health in these trying times.
WEBC is a subset of the Fiji Commerce & Employers Federation and part of its seven (7) Councils. Fiji Commerce & Employers Federation is established under the Companies Act and is governed by its Memorandum and Articles Association. WEBC’s primary objective is to ensure that the voice of women entrepreneurs in the formal and informal sectors is heard at the policy level. WEBC also provides capacity development and networking opportunities for its members.