Is it any wonder that many of the innocent and anguished pensioners, who are being so ruthlessly selected for a reduction in income by the Fiji National Provident Fund, no longer trust the Fund? They have lost confidence and trust in the FNPF Board chair, Ajith Kodagoda, and his fellow trustees Tom Rickets, Sashi Singh, Taito Waqa and Tevita Kuruvakadua.
These five must bear the very heavy burden of responsibility for the injustice the FNPF is now imposing on many of its middle and working class members.
The FNPF representative who has attracted most of the anger and despair of the pensioners is chief executive Aisake Taito.
Mr Taito, as the public face and voice of the FNPF, is a catastrophe. His performances at meetings with the FNPF victims were marked by obvious impatience, evasions and arrogance. He contemptuously dismissed or ignored difficult questions and had the hide to remind frightened pensioners that they should not be “personal” about the FNPF’s plans.
Personal? For God’s sake, of course it’s personal when your very own pension fund, that had promised your pension rate was for life, is getting ready to shaft you. The shafting process goes right to the core of an elderly person’s life. In their autumn years their retirement plans, founded on their FNPF irrevocable pensions, are thrown into upheaval.
They face an immediate drop in their standard of living; it is harder for them to put food on the table, pay the bills, meet their medical expenses and their family responsibilities. Those who have obligations to banks and other financial institutions based on their fixed and legally binding lifetime pensions, have been betrayed in a most cruel way.
When a despairing casualty told Mr Taito that he might now lose his home and that the Fund was “ruining our lives” the FNPF CEO appeared unmoved and unimpressed. He showed not a shred of compassion. The complainant was merely told not to make the issue personal. Those in the audience heard this with disbelief. What sort of man was this?
When Mr Taito indicated in a media interview that the FNPF is enforcing its pension cuts from a position of strength, he completed the transformation of the Fund into a callous and pitiless bully.
To the hapless victims the message is clear: ‘We are strong, you are weak. So we will do what we like because we can.’
This FNPF strength Mr Taito refers to must also mean that the fund is quite capable of honouring its contracts with its members if it so wishes.
But it does not wish to. The FNPF was always going to slash the payments of those it had in its sights. Put another way it was ready and willing to default on its obligations. For make no mistake, what we are witnessing here is a default. The FNPF is brazenly failing to meet a financial obligation. No shame, no regrets and hang the consequences.
It has obligations to the pensioners who entered into irrevocable contracts with it. Those contracts could not be changed. Even the FNPF has said this. In a statement earlier this year it emphasised that pensions were paid out monthly for as long as a member lived.
It is instructive and enlightening that, when pension rates were changed previously, current contracts were honoured.
Messrs Kodagoda, Rickets, Singh, Waqa and Kuruvakadua should reflect deeply on this. So should Mr Taito. They should not just reflect. They should examine their consciences.
Mr James Raman, a reputable citizen and former FNPF trustee, states emphatically that during his time the Board made sure that whatever decisions were taken were in compliance with trustee obligations and in accordance with the laws.
He adds: “Furthermore, the question of annuity paid to existing pensioners did not arise as it was a non-issue since pensions were paid under a legally binding contract entered (into) between the FNPF and the pensioner. To do otherwise would have been illegal. The present board should take note of this.”
Messrs Kodagoda, Rickets, Singh, Waqa, Kuruvakadua and Taito have gone into a state of deep and deadly denial on this issue of contracts. It is deadly because of the harm it is doing to their pensioners.
Mr Taito, meanwhile, is asserting that the FNPF is acting within the law because the Solicitor General says so! The CEO appears to be refuting the existence of contracts.
But he has been unable to explain why Shauna Tomkins and Stephen Mason of the Promontory Financial Group, consultants to the fund, acknowledged the FNPF did have contracts with its pensioners. Mr Mason in particular should know about this. He was a special counsel with a major Australian law firm, a member of the Australian Law Reform Commission, and had worked as a parliamentary counsel.
In a report, Promontory makes at least five references to contracts FNPF has with pensioners. It talks of contract law and contracted rate – meaning the rate at which a pension is contracted. Promontory said there would be difficulty under contract law in adjusting current pensions and it assumed they would not be changed. It says sufficient funds should be set aside to ensure future payments at the “contracted rate” were met. Promontory found little support for withdrawing existing pensions, “capping” them or resetting them.
So the FNPF board now has an unavoidable duty to explain why it tossed aside this expert advice from its own consultants.
The answer must surely be that it was dead set on trashing its pensioner contracts come what may. But we need to know why it was so fixated on doing this? From where did this obsession come?
The FNPF has now decided on its unjust and cruel course of action.
But many questions and issues remain. They will not go away now, or in the future. They will haunt the Fund and the current trustees.
If the FNPF is so certain that it does not have contractual obligations, why is it afraid to confront that question in court? Why is it a party to an iniquitous decree that robs its own members of a fundamental legal right? When Mr Taito speaks of acting from a position of strength, is he referring to the savage force of the decree?
Are the FNPF trustees prepared to go down in history as the perpetrators of the Great Contract Smashing? Are they ready to take responsibility for making Fiji into a land of broken contracts?
They know very well that observance of the law of contracts is vital for creating and maintaining commercial, investment and community confidence. The businessmen among them have an especially keen understanding of this.
If the law governing contracts is broken, an economy is damaged and investors shy away. Without investment an economy cannot produce enough jobs.
If the FNPF – Fiji’s largest financial institution – has dumped contracts once, what is there to stop it doing so again? Why should members ever trust the FNPF?
Messrs Kodagoda, Rickets, Singh, Waqa, Kuruvakadua and Taito: Hear this. Our struggle continues against all your power and strength. It will end when we have the justice to which we are entitled.