The Tongan Civil Servants Strike

July 19th – September 3rd 2005

In July 2005, having set up an independent body to revise civil service salaries, the Tongan Government announced that only the top levels of civil servant hierarchy would receive pay increases. While most salaries would remain adjusted –Tongan civil servants had not received a pay rise since 1986 – chief executives could receive pay rises of up to 80%. ‘Uliti Uata (the people’s representative from Ha’apai) articulated public reaction, saying that the government’s approach was based on the perpetuation of unfairness and selfishness central to the present system of governance.

On July 21 2005, three thousand civil servants launched industrial action. They proposed their own structure of pay rise based on the old salary scale: 60% for levels 2 to 5, 70% for levels 6 to 10 and 80% for levels 11 to 14. Tonga Civil Servants Grievancves

The Government offered the strikers, many of whom earned just $US25 a week, wage increases of up to 30%. The government claimed that Tonga could not afford the 60-80% the strikers demanded. "It's not just about finding the money now but in successive years" said Cabinet Member and Governor of Vava’u, Akuaola. The offer was rejected.

On 25th July government schools closed as 1400 teachers joined the striking civil servants.

The protest expanded into a wider campaign for democratic reform. Schools, hospitals, the rubbish collection and other services were crippled. Large crowds gathered every day in the capital’s central park (Pangai Siʻi) in support of the strikers.

By August 6th, Tonga's Public Service Commission was threatening action.  All weekend the national broadcaster relayed the Commission-ordered message that if civil servants did not report back to work at 8:30am on Monday morning local time, they would be reprimanded and penalties imposed.

By this time the Public Services Association had already rejected two Government offers of smaller increases. Preparations were being made for a march to the palace to present a list of grievances against the Government to the King. After a huge public rally on Monday 8th, the petition for the King’s intervention was hand delivered to the King's daughter, who was acting as Princess Regent while the King and Crown Prince were in New Zealand.

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister, the King's son Prince Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, was quoted in a Government news release giving the King's one-sentence reply – a directive to the Government to employ an independent auditor to check the figures that both sides had been using in the dispute over employment structures and pay levels.

On August 11th the PSA Committee rejected the King’s directive, saying they would put a new options paper to the Government. The committee chairman Finau Tutone said that, “the strike was about people not about figures”.

The following week, four government vehicles were torched and threats of arson were made against Government buildings, though no evidence linked the burnings to the ongoing strike. On Wednesday, 200 students from Tonga College were arrested after a rampage of damaged classrooms and vehicles. The students were demanding the reinstatement of their college principal and other senior staff dismissed by the government for supporting the strike.

On August 23, New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff announced that a team led by retired judge Tom Goddard and New Zealand Labour Union leader, Ross Wilson, would go to Tonga in an attempt to end the strike.

The government proposed an agreement with three elements:

A formula for return to work whereby for two weeks public servants would be paid the revised scale, with a lump sum “investment payment” decided by Judge Goddard to ensure no reductions in pay.

A provision of two weeks for good faith negotiations, the goal being to seek mutual agreement on a full settlement, in particular a revised pay scale which would be implemented from day 15.

A binding arbitration, enforceable in Tonga’s courts, to follow unsuccessful mediation. This would set a new revised pay scale with criteria such as fairness to employees, the Government and taxpayers is taken into account.

Despite New Zealand Government’s sponsored intervention and Judge Goddard and his team’s efforts to set up a formal mechanism for mediation, August 26th saw the total collapse of all negotiations between His Majesties cabinet and the Interim Committee for Civil Servants.

In August 26th and 27th meetings, the Civil Servants made the decision not to participate in any further negotiation with the Government.

Judge Goddard’s team returned to New Zealand on August 28th after failing to negotiate an end to the now five-week old strike. Judge Goddard announced that the talks foundered over agreement as to the mediation process. However Judge Goddard was either underestimating, not aware of, or unable to deal with the political dimension of the strike.  As it turned out the political dimension, represented by pro-democracy representatives and their support for Civil Servant demands, became the sticky part of any negotiation to end the strike.

In addition, an offer of help from Australia was deferred indefinitely.

It was significant that the NZ arbitration/mediation effort was instigated by a direct royal command, the first time such a command was used to solve an impasse between the State and the people. This meant that the failure of the mediation effort widened the social and political distance between the Monarch and his people.

The Governor of Vavaʻu informed the New Zealand Media that the Government was ready to deploy military force.

By now the strikers had been joined by pro-democracy politicians and the Small Business Association. The latter refused to collect consumption tax and demanded political change. Support was growing regionally and internationally. International Trade Unions indicated support: New Zealand Trade Unions provided financial support, the Teachers Union of Fiji came to support, and it was reported that unions in both Fiji and New Zealand were considering boycotting all sea or air communications.

Tongans overseas mobilized to provide financial resources and containers of food. Churches, religious groups and villages in Tonga offered support and offered to pay the strikers utility bills Various banks reported businesses (especially foreign owned) were transferring their capital and investment overseas.

There was much distrust, anger, instability and fear throughout the country. Communities and close families split over the issue.

Engaging Talanoa

On August 31st Dr Sitiveni Halapua, Director of the Pacific Islands Development Program of the East West Centre, Hawaii, arrived in Tonga on PIDP related business. The next morning he received a phone call from the Princess Regent requesting his assistance. He quickly learned that the Prime Minister, his Cabinet and the Princess Regent all held differing views on how to deal with the crisis.  After sharing his views, he was issued a royal command by the Princess Regent to act as an independent facilitator for a Talanoa process, and to endeavor to soften the impasse and bring the two sides back to the negotiating table. The Minister of Defense advised Dr Halapua was that he had two days to resolve the situation before the army moved into Pangai Siʻi to forcibly remove the strikers.

On Thursday Sept 01 2005, a Royal Command was announced to the Strikers at Pangai Siʻi. Immediately after, a meeting between Dr Halapua and the Civil Servant’s Interim committee was set for 12.00 am. The first task was to answer questions relating to the role of an independent facilitator in talanoa.  Eventually, after informing Dr Halapua of their demands, and the reasons for their decision to withdraw from any form of negotiation with the government, the Civil Servant’s Interim Committee agreed to both Dr Halapua as facilitator and the talanoa process with its fundamental criteria of no pre-determined agenda.  The talanoa between the new Cabinet negotiating team and the Interim Committee for Civil Servants began at 7.00pm. Talks focused on the Royal Command and the written demands submitted to the Prime Minister by the Interim Committee’s negotiating team. By midnight, the issues were narrowed down to a short list of less conflictual questions to be taken back to their respective sides for consultation. Talanoa recommenced at 2.00pm Friday September 2nd. After more than two hours, the process was able to isolate and distil their common understanding of areas/issues that could be included in a Memorandum of Understanding to be signed by both parties. At 5pm, the Government team requested that the draft be taken to the Privy Council for consideration and approval. The teams agreed to meet again at 8pm for the signing and for a press conference. The agreement was to backdate the 60-70-80% pay rise, take no disciplinary actions and in a engage two year suspension of the salary review that led to the strike, thus deferring for two years a plan that would cut up to 1,000 jobs from the 3,000-strong civil service. It was agreed all civil servants would resume duties at their respective work places at 8:30 a.m. on Monday 5th September.

However, the negotiating team for the Interim Committee for Civil Servants did not return at 8pm as agreed. It was learnt they had further demands: the inclusion of a call for political reform towards a more democratic form of government through constitutional change, a postponement of the signing and other additional issues.

Dr Halapua decided to go ahead with the press conference alone. As independent facilitator, he felt he had a duty to explain the critical situation to the nation and assure the Tongan people that the door was still open to both parties if/when they returned to the table. This was shown on national television several times on Friday night and Saturday.

Around 7pm on Saturday evening the Interim Committee’s negotiation team requested a return. Talanoa recommenced at 9.30pm. Further conditions were presented which were beyond the ambit of the salary issues proper. These conditions were of a political nature, relating to a review of the constitution, which proved very problematic. Difficulties were overcome by using a dual structure in the final draft: namely, a Memorandum of Understanding and an Attachment to the MOU. The latter contained undertakings made by the Cabinet Negotiations sub-Committee to submit to His Majesty’s Cabinet for consideration the proposal that “a Royal Commission be established immediately to review the Constitution to allow a more democratic Government to be established; and for the Royal commission to report back to Government and the Interim Committee on 31st December 2005.  The MOU was signed at 11.30pm September 03 2005.

Attempt to Repudiate the MOU

The dual structure of the MOU & Attachment split the strikers into two camps: the supporters of the civil servants salary demands and the supporters of political reform. Some of the latter were not happy with the agreement to return to work on Monday. A demonstration demanding political reform was scheduled for Tuesday and relied heavily on the strike action for impetus. On Sunday September 4th, an attempt was made to repudiate the signed MOU.  The attempt failed and the split quickly healed with all parties supporting the MOU & Attachment. This was evidenced in the overwhelming support for and participation in the demonstration for political freedom on Tuesday September 6th, when over 10,000 people gathered outside the Royal Palace calling on the King to dismiss the Prime Minister and all of his 14 cabinet Ministers. The MOU achieved through the talanoa process settled the public servant strike. However, His Majesty’s Government continues to face the challenge of the people’s struggle for political reform.

©Talanoa & Development Project. All Rights Reserved.


Despite the multiplicity of viewpoints and the differences in the stories about various beliefs, experiences, memories, and hopes it is possible by means of many and various talanoa to exhibit an attitude of mutual respect and understanding that defines the ways...which promote greater trust and understanding of the fonua [the collective way of life and the nurturing of the relations between King, Chiefs, People and Land].

excerpt from the NCPR Report (translation)

The Tongan Civil Servants Strike 19 July - 3 September 2005

Faced with an increasingly conflictual impasse between striking civil servants and the government of Tonga, the Princess Regent issued a Royal Command to engage the talanoa process.

The National Committee For Political Reform 14 November 2005 - 1 August 2006

To reveal Tonga’s moral pre-conditions for political reform, the NCPR parliamentary committee, chaired by Prince Tuiʻpelehake, brought the talanoa process to every village in the Kingdom.

NCPR TOR English  

NCPR TOR Tonganf

Parliamentary Capacity Enhancement And Talanoa Program For Members Of The Legislative Assembly 16 -18 July 2008

UNDP and the Government and Parliament of Tonga requested a talanoa workshop to provide members of Tonga’s Parliament the opportunity to share experiences and ideas concerning their important legislative, representative and oversight roles.

UNDP report on Tonga Workshop

TDP Tonga