COVID-19 and the World of Work

Leave no one behind! Making covid-safe business recovery protocol inclusive

ILO and UNDP facilitated a consultation between government partners across the Fijian Ministry of Commerce, Trade, Tourism and Transport [MCTTT] and the Fiji Commerce and Employers Federation [FCEF], with Micro and Small Business Enterprises [MSME’s] representatives – to allow MSME’s to provide feedback on and influence COVID-safe business operation protocols before they were enacted into law.

News | 19 July 2021
online consultation session
A particularly important element of the group was the presence of MSME’s operating within the informal sector; individuals whose livelihoods have been pummeled by the pandemic, and who faced extreme vulnerability due to exclusion from social safety net programs and other government benefits.

Essential national responses to COVID-19, including the establishment of fixed containment zones, curfews and temporary lockdowns during this second wave that began in April 2021, have meant that businesses are straining under the weight of a protracted crisis; many businesses have been forced to shut down as a result. For those still in operation, an enabling regulatory system for safe business operations is the only way forward to generate income and jobs, while fueling economic recovery.

Among the key challenges highlighted during the meeting was the concern around high compliance costs for MSME operators. For example, the Fijian Government has repeatedly urged all Fijians to download the CareFiji phone app – a digital program that requires a smartphone to be able to use. Business places are given a QR code that all customers must scan on entry and exit, in order to support contact tracing efforts. MSME operators explained that not everyone is able to afford a smartphone, and that customers should be provided with the option to manually register themselves, instead of being turned away.

Another concern raised centered around the government’s proposed directive that business owners must arrange for private transportation for all employees, as well as foot the cost for employee swabbing and COVID testing if required. MSME’s – who rarely have company vehicles – suggested that public transport be considered, as all transport operators are mandated to comply with COVID-safe regulations.

In regards to swabbing and testing costs, MSME’s recommended that government absorb this cost on their behalf or provide a percentage cash incentive to all businesses as they are not in a financial position to be able to take on the additional cost.

Within the Informal Economies Recovery Project, an added emphasis is being placed on the recovery of the Agriculture and Creative industries, as these were found to particularly hard-hit during the UN in the Pacific 2020 COVID-19 Socio-Economic Impact Assessment. Cultural and Creative Industry representatives raised the challenges they were facing in moving from in-person to digital on-line market places. It was proposed that the Reserve Bank of Fiji allow for open and easier transactions between banks and new mobile phone payment platforms like mPaisa and MyCash. They also advocated for the development of affordable e-commerce solutions such as apps which could be used to market their products.

Small-holder farmers present at the consultations explained that local buying power had reduced dramatically and that they needed more enabling regulations to allow for profitable export of farm produce – remembering that product shelf-life was short for perishable items like fruit and vegetables. It was proposed that government subsidize freight costs for MSME farmers and increase their capacity of moving goods. Additionally, time-consuming bureaucratic processes need to be reduced in order to speed up the efficient movement of produce across local containment zone borders, as well as overseas.

As with most crises, we are continuing to see typically vulnerable groups being ‘left behind’. Persons living with disabilities [PwDs] within Fiji’s MSME sector, usually operate home-businesses and have raised that they are not receiving enough direct support. This has resulted in many individuals falling into humanitarian-assistance schemes in order to be able to feed themselves and their families. These schemes do not provide the long-term economic sustainability that a person needs in order to maintain and increase their standard of living. With 31.7% - or 131,575 people - living with some form of disability in Fiji, they cannot continue to exist as a forgotten or marginalized group. MCTTT was encouraged by MSME operators to design cash incentives for PwD-owned businesses and to ensure that they were always included in national assistance surveys.

Finally, contributors from the performing arts sector raised the complex issue of not being able to ‘operate virtually’ or fully digitalize their businesses due to the nature of services they provided. The Fiji Islands Dance Association highlighted that they were dependent on the physical gathering of people, and to a large degree on the tourism sector. Resumption of their businesses relied on government effectively addressing the critical health crisis that COVID-19 presented. Performing artists present at the consultations advocated for clearer and more frequent communication between MCTTT and MSME’s, as well as more MSME-dedicated telephone help lines with trained support staff.

MSME Representatives Contributors included:
1. Young Entrepreneurs Council (YEC)
2. Fiji Small & Medium Business Entrepreneurs Network
3. Small Holder Farmers Representative/Rise Beyond the Reef NGO
4. Disabled Persons in Business Representative
5. Fiji Islands Dance Association [FIDA]
6. Women Entrepreneurs Business Council (WEBC)
7. Fiji Small & Micro Entrepreneurs Community
8. Duavata Collective