The Honourable Cabinet Ministers;
Chairman of Suva City Council, Mr Isikeli Tokaduadua;
Acting Chief Executive Officer, Mr Azam Khan;
President of the Suva Retailers Association, Mr Vinay Kumar;
Members of the Suva Retailers Association;
Invited Guests;
Ladies and Gentlemen.

Bula Vinaka and good evening to you all.

I’m glad to see such a wonderful start to Suva on Sale.

I hope to find the time this week to make my way down to Marks Street, Thomson Street and around the Central Business District (CBD) to see your shop decorations myself as we all look ahead to Fiji’s 50th Birthday celebration this Saturday. Depending on the deals, I may bring my shopping bags with me.

Through the decades, many of the shop owners in our CBD have truly lived their jobs –– some living right above the very same shops they ran. The running of these businesses was often a true family affair, with husbands and wives, and children all involved. Suva has grown and modernized a great deal over the last 50 years, but these businesses have persevered. For all that has changed, your shops still bustle with shoppers on Saturdays, and you still supply variety and innovation to our local Suva economy.

Tonight we honour that living legacy, as we pay tribute to more than 40 members of the Suva Retailers Association who have operated small or medium-sized enterprises within the CBD for more than fifty years.

This is quite an accomplishment. It takes a great deal of hard work and vigilance to stay in business that long—to stay ahead of changing consumer tastes, to understand the economy and how it will affect business, to plan for growth and hedge against adversity. Business is about knowing people and understanding and managing risk, and if you do that well, you can last 50 years or more.

But in all the years you have been in business, we’ve never seen anything as severe as COVID-19 and its economic impacts. This year in Fiji, we expected nearly one million tourists.

But border closures have cut off that flow of revenue, and the ripple effects have been felt across every industry. All our citizens have suffered, but small businesses have borne an especially heavy burden. And it is little comfort to any of us that other cities and businesses around the world are suffering the exact same fate.

Fijians are safe from COVID-19 because we acted fast to contain the virus. We became a COVID-contained country, the first in the world. Our COVID-Safe Economic Recovery has kicked into gear, your doors have re-opened to customers, and shoppers have returned to spending their weekends in the CBD.

But while things are slowly getting better, we can’t kid ourselves into thinking everything is back to normal.

Until our border re-opens, most business revenues will not be what they used to be. We are still in discussions with our development partners regarding our Bula Bubble. Contrary to some recent media reports, we have indeed expressed an interest to New Zealand to resume regular travel between our countries. Given that Fiji is COVID-Contained, given we have gone over 170 days without a new case of the virus, given the exemplary job we have done at managing our border, and given the economic urgency of resuming flows of two-way trade and tourism, we are keen to see those discussions advance past the exploratory phase and onto practical progress as soon as possible.

While no one really can say how soon a return to “business-as-usual” may be, rest assured, your Government will continue to do all we can to help you weather this storm.

This year’s national budget included several fiscal incentives to boost our retail activities. It slashed duties on over 1,600 items. Counting the drops in ECAL, the elimination of STT and the Stamp Duty, along with the elimination of business licenses, and the elimination of tax on profits in a number of industries, this latest budget introduced the steepest overall tax cut in Fijian history. And it put forward a two-billion-dollar economic stimulus. It was also a compassionate budget, allocating another 100 million dollars in direct assistance to those who need it. It extends concessional loans to micro, small and medium enterprises, helping them stay afloat through this global recession. And it has increased accessibility for families to critical services like water and electricity.

Of course, Government can’t fix every problem businesses face, but there are some problems that only Government can fix. And there are other problems that Government can at least help you solve. The budget proved that we understand your problems and we’re prepared to do our part to cushion the blow to your bottom-line. Now we are doing more.

Last week we announced the “Stronger Together” Jobs Support Scheme. It’s a hiring subsidy designed to help put Fijians back in jobs. For employers who are approved as Stronger Together Employers, Government will subsidise the wages of eligible new hires at $2.68 per hour. We’ll pay these salaries for at least three months, and extend the scheme if necessary, depending on economic conditions and the state of the pandemic.

For your part, you will have to bear the cost of FNPF contributions and any other employee-associated costs for new hires. For purposes of this scheme, new employees will be considered against existing staff numbers as of 30 September, 2020, as verified through FNPF. Stronger Together Employers must also pay the respective sectoral minimum wage, on top of the Government subsidy for jobs where the higher wage rate applies.

I want to invite you all here tonight to answer our invitation and come forward to partner with Government on this initiative.

Ladies and Gentlemen, that is the sort of collaborative spirit that all Fijians must embrace to get through this difficult time.

We are stronger together. That’s not just a catch-phrase, and it is more than a hashtag, it is a precious truth. Government is prepared to our part. We are determined to help you navigate these turbulent seas—not just to keep you afloat, but to keep you moving forward.

Your part is just as important. You cannot rest for a moment. You must continue to re-invent and upgrade your businesses and the systems you use to attract customers in this competitive age. You must continue to keep pace with a changing society, and cater to our younger population. In other words, you must continue to do the things that have allowed more than forty of you to be in business for 50 years. But be aware: That job is more challenging every year, so you’ll have to be better, sharper and more innovative than ever.

I am happy to be here to help you recognize the businesses that have endured downtown for 50 years. Your resilience has been tested time and again, and you have prevailed and grown.

Congratulations to you, and thank you for everything you do for Suva and Fiji.

Vinaka Vakalevu.

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