12 JUNE 2002
By Mario Schembri Wismayer
Asked for his reactions to the criticisms levelled at unions by bodies such as the FOI and the Chamber of Commerce, Mr Joe Grillo, UHM spokesman, negated that unions actively used the "old methods" of disruption of society to get what they wanted from Government and society.
He said that the unions first and foremost tried to get the concerned parties to meet round a table and to discuss the issue with a view to reaching a compromise that was acceptable to all concerned. Contrary to common belief, unions were not strike-happy and only resorted to industrial actions as a last resort when no other avenue was left open to them.
A typical case in point, he said was the case of the ambulance drivers. The government had ignored the unions request to meet and talk and now they were constrained to consider other options.
He said that the recent proposals made in the white paper governing conditions of employment and industrial relations threw back the interests of workers by twenty years.
Mr Grillo said that rather than having a surplus of workers in the public sector, it was more a case of workers being unevenly deployed in the various sections, so that in fact, there were some sections, like at St Lukes here there was an actual shortage of staff. He said that one should not take the sight of government workers standing still next to works as a sign that that there were too many workers. He said that usually they would be waiting for tools or material in order to continue working.
Joe Grillo said that blaming the lack of foreign investment on the workers good pay and the ensuing erosion of competitiveness did not make sense. He said that up to 1990 their pay was not good and there wasnt more investment back then. He said if the spending power of the worker had increased through a better pay, this would be beneficial to the economy as the industrialists would have a larger market to sell to.
Foreign investment depended on training and re-training ones workforce. Employers let the workforce down by not investing enough in training, as they should feel duty-bound to do.
Joe Grillo said that one possible source for erosion of competitiveness could be linked to the high tax we paid as a result of the tax evasion that still went on, in spite of the new procedures which were meant to tackle this problem.
The central message contained in the report released by the Malta Employers Association, Malta Federation of Industry, Malta Chamber of Commerce, Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association and General Retailers and Trade Unions, said that while employers were not against improving working conditions and living standards, it should be kept in mind that conditions in Malta were better than in many other EU applicant countries.
The purpose of the report was to present a series of proposals to make sure Malta remains an attractive investment destination and to offset increase in labour costs that the new employment and industrial relations bill is going to bring about
The generation of wealth has to rest on the three pillars of stable industrial relations, flexibility and competitiveness. Malta could not continue to compete if it became more expensive than other countries in all aspect of production.
One of the main ways of reducing costs is by achieving better efficiency. Although the introduction of occupational health and safety should mean a saving in fewer absences from work, the cost of implementing and maintaining such a system was not inconsiderable.
The welfare gap was a problem that needed seeing to. It could have a direct bearing on employers if these have to increase their share of contributions, or indirectly through wage claims made because of falling standards of living.
Environmental protection costs might also push up expenses.
The report proposed several countermeasures, the first of which was to threshold public holidays that fell on weekends. Malta, with 38 days, had one of the highest numbers of days of vacation leave, being on par with Austria and following after Italy, whose days off fluctuate between 32 to 42. The proposal here is to stop adding holidays that fall on weekends to the days of leave. The reasoning behind vacation leave should be based on attendance, not absence.
Port charges were always very expensive and have become even more so recently. An effort was made to regulate the situation but the relevant parties did not manage to reach consensus. Ideally port charges should resemble those of the UK within two years.
Energy charges paid by industry in Malta were the third highest in Europe. These should be brought down by the end of next year, the report recommends.
Water costs for manufacturing, tourism and commercial sector were the highest known costs in Europe and the quality was far from satisfactory. The removal of impurities in the water made it even more expensive and thus decreased competitiveness.
Flexibility had to be introduced in the public service. It could no longer remain that in the summer months, some services simply closed down in the afternoons.
As far as taxation was concerned, the tax floor should be raised by the cost of living increases to minimise increase in labour costs.