Vanuatu is a multiparty parliamentary democracy with a freely elected government. Following a snap election in 2016, which observers considered generally free and fair, parliament elected Charlot Salwai as prime minister. The president is head of state. Parliament elected Tallis Obed Moses president in July 2017.
The national police maintain internal security. The Vanuatu Mobile Force, a paramilitary police unit, is responsible for external security but also has some domestic-security responsibilities. Both agencies report to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included corruption, and minimal progress in reducing the worst forms of child labor.
The government made efforts to prosecute and punish abuses by officials, although some police impunity persisted.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press and judiciary and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of speech and press.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views.
Violence and Harassment: In November, Dan McGarry, a Canadian citizen, long-time resident, and the editor of the country’s largest independent newspaper, the Daily Post, told media that the government had refused to renew his work permit. According to McGarry the government claimed this was in order to fill the position by somebody from the country, but McGarry said that in July the prime minister had summoned him and berated him for “negative reporting.” McGarry believed the prime minister was specifically displeased with Daily Post reporting in July about the government’s cooperation with China to deport six Chinese nationals, four of whom had recently acquired Vanuatu citizenship through a program designed to attract Chinese investment.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, but the government developed an ad hoc system for providing protection to refugees and granted temporary refugee status and asylum to those seeking it while awaiting resettlement by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The government cooperated with UNHCR in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government made some efforts to implement the law. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity, and there were isolated reports of government corruption.
The Office of the Ombudsman and the Auditor General’s Office are key government agencies responsible for combating government corruption. In July, Hamlison Bulu was appointed ombudsman.
Corruption: The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented the law. In 2017 the Office of the Ombudsman recommended that Deputy Prime Minister Bob Loughman be prosecuted for breaching the leadership code by trying to exercise undue influence over the member selection process for the Vanuatu Institute of Teacher Education. As of November the Public Prosecutor’s Office had not acted on the recommendation.
In July an official from the Department of Strategic Planning and Policy was sentenced to eight years in prison for embezzling VUV 5.6 million ($48,200) in public funds.
Also in July an official from the Department of Education was sentenced to 14 months in prison for defrauding the state of VUV 6.88 million ($59,200) in public funds.
Financial Disclosure: Members of parliament and elected members of provincial governments are subject to a leadership code of conduct that includes financial disclosure requirements. They must submit annual financial-disclosure reports to the clerk of parliament, who then publishes a list of elected officials who did not comply. The Office of the Ombudsman, which investigates those who do not submit reports, confirmed that some officials did not comply with these requirements. Reports are not made available to the public, and the ombudsman only has access for investigative purposes.
In September 2018 Kalo Seule, a sitting member of parliament, was convicted of tax evasion for not declaring income from his personal business. Seule appealed his conviction; however, the magistrate court had no jurisdiction to hear the charges relating to a monetary claim exceeding VUV 988,000 ($8,500), so the case was transferred to the Supreme Court in October 2018.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A number of domestic and international human rights groups operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials often were cooperative and responsive to their views.
Government Human Rights Bodies: In consultation with other political leaders, the president appoints a government ombudsman to a five-year term. Investigating alleged human rights abuses is among the Office of the Ombudsman’s responsibilities. The office, however, does not have the power to prosecute, and the findings of its investigations are not admissible as evidence in court proceedings. The ombudsman referred cases deemed valid to the Public Prosecutor’s Office for action, but there were few prosecutions.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions, strike, and bargain collectively. This right is not extended to the police force or prison service. While the law does not require union recognition by the employer, it prohibits antiunion discrimination once a union is recognized. Unions are required to register with the government and to submit audited statements of revenue and expenditure to the registrar annually. Unions require government permission to affiliate with international labor federations; the government has not denied any union such permission.
The law prohibits retaliation for legal strikes but does not explicitly require reinstatement for workers fired for union activity. Unions are independent of the government, but there were instances of government interference in union activities. The law requires unions to give 30 days’ notice of intent to strike and to provide a list of the names of potential strikers. A union must also show that it has attempted negotiation with the employer and reported the matter to the industrial registrar for possible mediation. The minister of labor may prohibit persons employed in essential services from striking. Under the law a court may find any person who fails to comply with such a prohibition guilty of an offense; similarly, for strikes in nonessential services, courts may also find workers failing to comply with procedural requirements guilty of an offense. Convictions for such offenses may result in an obligation to perform compulsory labor in public prisons.
Complaints from private-sector workers about violations of freedom of association are referred to the Department of Labor for conciliation and arbitration. The Public Service Commission handles complaints of violations from public-sector workers. Complaints of antiunion discrimination must be referred to the Department of Labor. According to the commissioner for labor, the department has a dispute-resolution process to manage these grievances.
The government effectively enforced applicable law without lengthy delays or appeals. Resources were limited, and investigations were generally only carried out following complaints. Penalties for violating the law were sufficient to deter violations.
The government and employers respected freedom of association, but the right to collective bargaining was not explicitly laid out in the law. In May the Teachers Union issued a strike notice demanding that the government settle teachers’ grievances regarding pay-scale anomalies and outstanding benefits. The government and the union agreed to a settlement before any strike action. In June the Ministry of Education promised the Vanuatu Teachers Commission that the first tranche of VUV 153 million ($1.32 million) would be released, settling the outstanding salaries of 576 teachers. A future installment of VUV 376 million ($3.23 million) was allocated for the remaining 585 teachers. These installments were appropriated in the current VUV 506 million ($4.35 million) supplementary budget.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The constitution and law prohibit all forms of forced or compulsory labor, and the law prohibits slavery and human trafficking. The law excludes from the definition of forced labor any work or service that forms part of the national civic obligations of citizens, but the law does not define such work.
The government effectively enforced the law. Penalties for violating the law were sufficient to deter violations. There were no reports that forced labor occurred.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law does not explicitly prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. The law establishes the minimum age for employment at 14. The law prohibits children younger than 12 from working outside family-owned agricultural production, where many children assisted their parents. Children ages 12 to 14 may perform light domestic or agricultural work if a family member works alongside the child, and agricultural work if the community does it collectively. Children younger than 18 generally may not work on ships; however, with the permission of a labor officer, a child age 15 may work on a ship. Although parliament established a minimum age of 15 for hazardous work, the law does not comply with international standards, because it does not prohibit children ages 16 to 17 from engaging in hazardous work, such as industrial labor and work on ships.
The government did not release enough information related to its enforcement of child-labor law to determine whether the law was effectively enforced. The Department of Labor confirmed there were no reported cases of illegal child labor during the year, and department action to address child labor was limited to informal presentations on the topic. There were no reports of government stopping child-labor activities or imposing administrative barriers. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.
According to the National Child Protection Policy, the country has no data to determine the nature and prevalence of child labor. The Department of Labor stated, however, that most child workers were involved in logging activities. Logging activities expose children to hazardous activities including having no proper protective equipment to operate machines, no proper training, and no regular medical checkups. Children were also involved in handling or lifting heavy loads. There were also reports of a lack of regular inspection from forestry and other appropriate government agencies to provide appropriate guidance to the workers.
There were no credible reports of children employed in agriculture illegally, although legal employment of children in hazardous work could constitute a worst form of child labor. There were reports children were subjected to commercial sexual exploitation (see section 6, Children).
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The constitution prohibits employment discrimination with respect to race, religion, political opinion, traditional beliefs, place of origin or citizenship, language, or sex.
The government did not effectively enforce prohibitions on employment discrimination against women, which was widespread. The penalties for violation of this prohibition are not sufficient to deter violations.
Discrimination against women was especially common in promotions to management positions. Persons with disabilities also faced discrimination with respect to employment and occupations. The International Labor Organization noted that legislation allowing for the removal of persons with disabilities from some senior positions appeared to reflect an assumption that persons are incapable of holding such a position if they have any form of disability.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The minimum wage is above the national poverty income level.
The law provides for a 44-hour maximum workweek, and the total number of hours worked, including overtime, should not exceed 56 hours per week. Workers must receive more than three days paid annual holidays. The law provides for a premium of 50 to 75 percent more than the normal rate of pay for overtime work.
The law includes provisions for occupational safety standards, which are up-to-date and appropriate for the main sectors. Legal provisions on working conditions and safety standards apply equally to foreign workers and citizens in the formal sector. Application of safety and health provisions were inadequate to protect workers engaged in logging, agriculture, construction, and manufacturing. While workers have the legal right to remove themselves from dangerous situations, the government did not protect workers in this situation.
The government did not effectively enforce the law, especially in the informal sector. The labor commissioner stated that most companies complied with the wage rate and inspectors conducted routine inspections to determine that minimum wages were paid. The number of inspectors was not sufficient to deter violations. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. The government did not receive any formal complaints of violations regarding minimum wage, hours of work, or safety standards during the year.
Many companies in logging, agriculture, construction, and manufacturing did not provide personal safety equipment and standard scaffolding for workers.