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Fiji: Government explains deportation of Fiji Water boss

David Roth, Fiji Water’s local representative, was kicked out of Fiji because he was interfering with the country’s internal affairs, says military leader Frank Bainimarama.

Bainimarama, speaking over the weekend during a trip to China, said Roth was acting in contradiction to his work visa. He did not elaborate on details, but Fiji’s leader said the representative to the US-based premium water firm was “had been acting in a manner prejudicial to good governance and public order by interfering in the domestic affairs and governance of Fiji.”

Photo from Flickr by dlisbona

Since Roth left the country November 18, Fiji’s government has tried to paint the squabble as an issue between an individual and the state. Permanent Secretary for Information, Sharon Smith-Johns said the government was not targeting the multi-million dollar water company that bears the country’s name. She also reassured the business community of the islands’ favorable investment climate.

Taxing situation
Fiji Water began distributing to the United States in 1997 and can now be found in 40 countries. The company was bought for an estimated $50 million USD in 2004 by the US billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick. That year it won the US Secretary of State’s Award for Corporate Excellence for bringing sustainable jobs to Fiji. Fiji Water currently ships $150 million USD per year, employs 350 local workers and spends an estimated $1.3 million USD a year on development projects. “However, this is a lot less than the 30 per cent corporate tax it would normally pay,” Hamish McDonald wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Fiji’s government originally provided the start-up company with tax free status until 2008. That year the Bainimarama government proposed 20 cent per litre tax over all water bottled in the country. Bottlers bristled at this and Fiji Water shut down its plant in the Yaqara valley for a few days during the dispute, which the government eventually backed down. With a $150 million bond payment coming due next year for Fiji’s government, McDonald speculates Bainimarama could be re-thinking the tax plan.

However, the action is not unanimous. Ratu Epeli Ganilau, Fiji’s minister of Defense and Immigration, resigned from the government, claiming differences stemming from the Roth affair. Rumors persist that he was ordered to sign Roth’s deportation papers and refused.

Paradise for business?
Crosbie Walsh, author of Fiji: The Way it Was, Is and Can Be, said the government did itself a great disservice in the Roth affair.

I have to agree with readers that whatever the cause, Government has made a serious mistake in deporting the Fiji Water CEO. If he was really interfering in Fiji's internal affairs in a major way, whether it was purely personal or whether it was a tax issue involving Fiji Water, is beside the point. The matter could have been dealt with much better, and at a better time.

It would seem Government is unable or unwilling to handle criticism or questioning of its position without over-reaction. The signal they have sent to investors and the international community is not very reassuring, especially with Fiji Water being an American company and America's recently inferred more conciliatory towards Fiji. Kid gloves are needed in diplomacy not mailed fists.

Walsh does concede that this situation could be similar to the recent standoff between Warner Brothers and the government of New Zealand over the US-based entertainment company's refusal to pay taxes (and follow labor laws) if it decided to make two films based on the Hobbit in the country. In the end, the government ceded to many of Warner Bros. demands to keep production in New Zealand.

In a comment, Proud Fijian partially agreed.

Only difference is Warner Bros has a choice to take the movie elsewhere. Fiji Water is Fiji Water.

We need investors in Fiji who are willing to contribute to the economy in paying taxes. What makes us think that this will stop investors coming to Fiji.

Actually by doing this we choose who we want as business partners to invest in Fiji- ethical companies with a win-win approach.

In Fiji Board Exiles, real jack argues Fiji’s government has hurt itself toward outside investors by making the fight personal.

yesterday [Permanent Secretary for Information] Sharon Jones made a release saying that they will explain to the business community that the situation with Roth is merely between the Govt and Roth. tsk tsk tsk – its probably the stupidest statement she has ever made – she doesn't seem to realise the implications and significance of that statement -

what she is basically saying is that the Govt can target individual persons and that once the govt targets individual persons like Roth there is no right of recourse to the law or the Court – which is exactly whats happened to Roth.

this is a terrible statement for a govt to make – because it means that Govt is in the business of persecuting people – that Roths removal was persecution.

In Fiji Today, sa rauta vinaka said Roth should have been fighting a different battle.

I mite share some sympathy for Roth’s expulsion if he had lobbied for a quick return to parliamentary representation and democracy for the people of Fiji INSTEAD of using his paid dumb stoogies (ganiluas & naulukaus) to keep all his freeby arrangements with the IG. As for the sponsorships they’ve done around the country, my neighbour tells me that is peanuts and loose change for them.

Photo form the Flickr page of dlisbona
  • http://www.solanasaurus.com/ Solana Larsen

    Thanks for this update, I see Fiji water bottles at stores in New York and it’s interesting to know all this. I think a lot of people honestly don’t even think about whether the water in the bottle actually came from Fiji or it’s just pretty marketing.

  • Pingback: Global Voices in English » Fiji Water closes the tap and leaves the country

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