16 JANUARY 2002

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Striking a balance

At the beginning of the month the government presented the public with a seemingly iron will to prevent future sympathy strikes through the employment and industrial relations white paper.

However, it now appears it has disappointingly adopted a somewhat more lenient approach to the matter, with the Prime Minister on Sunday lowering the tone a couple notches by explaining that the government simply wants to ensure that the right to carry out a sympathy strike is not abused.

The unions understandably applauded the announcement - one insinuating that the government had buckled after realising just how strong the union opposition would be.

Meanwhile, the opposition described the move as a somersault - as the government had first stated there was general agreement over the measure among all those concerned, then U-turning when it noticed a united opposition against the measure.

On Monday the General Workers' Union chief told a press conference it expected the government to unequivocally remove the amendment prohibiting sympathy strikes, adding that it was expecting the government to inform the GWU that the measure had been deleted.

However, the question begs: If sympathy strikes are to be allowed - provided that abuse of the right does not take place - where does one draw the line between abuse and the right to strike out of sympathy?

Sympathy strikes have plagued administrations and private enterprises for at least 15 years and such strikes have paralysed the economy's primary lifelines, such as the ports and the airport. They allow Malta's unions to lock the country in a stranglehold at will and with the slightest of reasons.

The unions have made the point that there had been no agreement over the definition of trade disputes within the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development. Malta's social partners will gather tomorrow for a highly anticipated meeting at the MCESD. It is expected that some ground will be covered on the road toward defining a trade dispute and in drawing at least a line in the sand between a legitimate sympathy strike and an outright abuse.

It is true that a white paper is, after all, no more that a white paper - its measures are not by any means etched in stone. Perhaps the government had intended to simply test the waters of the delicate issue, perhaps it is truly committed to loosening the unions' hold on the economy. The government's precise stance is expected to be revealed over the coming days.

Meanwhile, concerning the flip side of the white paper - that of granting wider rights to workers - the unions have found no bones of contention. However, the white paper fails to address the issue of whether the Cost of Living Adjustment given by government in every budget should be applied across the board. In the current situation employers end up giving wage rises because of collective agreements signed with the respective unions and wage increases due to the annual adjustment announced in the budget.

A concrete decision-making capacity has to be ingrained into the workings of CERA, if future disputes in this sensitive area are to be avoided.

Within this scope, there also needs to be a greater differentiation between government’s executive role and the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development’s role. However, by no means should the two branches operate as separate entities, they must be finely tuned and synchronised in order to capitalise on potential synergies.

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt