17 JULY 2002

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Social development and the Mediterranean

Earlier this month Social Policy Minister Lawrence Gonzi spoke at a sub-regional workshop on ‘Social Development and Social Systems’ organised by the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development and the Istituto per il Mediterraneo. Dr Gonzi contends that working together will multiply the opportunities for growth for all those concerned

I congratulate the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development and the Istituto per il-Mediterraneo for this initiative which is being financed by the European Commission within the framework of the MEDA programme. Similarly, my appreciation extends to the European and Social Committee and the Euro-Mediterranean Economic and Social Councils for promoting this Project.

Let me start off by saying that the objectives of this Project are indeed ambitious. Achieving consensus between social partners and governments about the evolution of social systems within the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership is by no means an easy task. The diversity of our history, our cultures, our heritage and our own legal frameworks appear to make convergence difficult. This notwithstanding, I have no hesitation in stating that the objective is achievable if our discussions take place within a set of agreed parameters.

First of all we need to understand the enormous change that has taken place in global matters during the last fifty years. Technology has removed our frontiers. Our countries had one single common denominator – the Mediterranean Sea – an element which made us share our destinies, but which at the same time, separated us from each other just as much as our national territories separated one country from another. Today this has changed. Frontiers have become bridges that bring us together. The flow of merchandise and services does no longer take place only on trucks, ships, trains or containers, they take place through satellite systems, through telephone lines and through information technology.

Secondly we must also understand that there is no way of stopping this momentous change and therefore we need to adapt as quickly as possible not by way of reaction, but by way of a committed strategy that aims at maximising the potential of this change. The EU enlargement process is an important part of this scenario. Similarly the EU’s focus on Mediterranean Partners Countries is also an important part of this same scenario.

Thirdly, working together will multiply our opportunities for growth. The time for extreme nationalistic attitudes is now a part of history and cannot return because it contradicts the evolution that has taken place since the Second World War and the lessons that were learnt since then.

Fourthly, let us not make the mistake of thinking that these changes are limited to their technological dimension. These are changes that have an overpowering human dimension that must remain central to our approach. If we remove this dimension, then we all face serious trouble. But if we remind ourselves that there is a human face and a human heart to every workers, employer, male or female, child or adult, then the decisions we take will be of enormous benefit to our peoples.

It is my opinion that we can discuss Social Dialogue and Social Systems and achieve our objective if we place our discussions within these four parameters.

Let me make a second point. The topic chosen for this workshop generates debate and reflection at different levels, be it at the European Commission, the ILO, UNICE, ETUC and other corporate confederations. It is also a topic of enormous interest to Malta for three main reasons.

Firstly because as time goes by it is becoming ever more evident that economic and social progress can only be registered if this is the result of the input made by social partners who have a common objective, namely the national interest.

Secondly, because we raised our expectations about two years ago when we upgraded our national social dialogue mechanism, setting up the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development through a legislative instrument that introduced new concepts – such as the inclusion of the social dimension and the participation of civil society.

Thirdly, because we are presently discussing in parliament new legislation that radically upgrades our employment and industrial legal framework.

The topic is therefore very relevant to us in Malta. As expected, there is a lot of common ground, but there are also a few points of contention that can and will be resolved if we apply a common sense approach and if we seek what is in our collective interest.

One of the themes that have been identified for discussion in this workshop deals with the organisations that are representative of the economic and social interests. In a sense, the issue here is one of governance. Like private enterprise, governance needs to seek partners in synergy for economic and social prosperity. This is the whole raison d’etre of social dialogue – better governance! To do so, admittedly, one has to identify common goals and baseline fundamental principles upon which the different social actors need to agree should they wish to remain vibrant representatives of their constituencies, be it the electorate, workers or employers.

Of course, social dialogue does not always necessarily mean consensus. But it certainly always means an open and free exchange of views that enrich the final outcome or decision that must be taken. I stress here, the word "must" because the tendency to discuss without reaching the decisive stage, is one which should be avoided since there is nothing worse than procrastination in a world that is undergoing change at an extremely rapid pace.

This was the whole philosophy underpinning my government’s initiative late last year to set up a legal framework for social dialogue on the islands. The Act setting up the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development embraced some key fundamental principles of corporate governance, which taps the resources of the stakeholders without merging or subduing their sectoral interests which are so important in a democratic society. At the national level however, the sectoral interests needs to give way to national priorities based on the new agenda of industrial relations – one which seeks economic growth, competitiveness, social cohesion and social justice.

Two other themes that have been indicated for discussion relate to the expression of the fundamental rights of workers and the legislation on workers’ protection and promotion in the Mediterranean Partners Countries. These are themes that address issues such as the removal of discrimination, on grounds of gender, race, political conviction etc. They are also issues that focus on health and safety at the place of work, on working time, on protection in case of maternity, protection in case of unfair dismissal, collective redundancies, guarantee funds etc.

Again these are issues that are very relevant to us in Malta at this point in time precisely because we are presently undertaking the task to overhaul our employment and industrial relations legislation. This is an exercise that will bring us in line with all the major ILO conventions, with the Revised European Social Charter and with some important UN Conventions dealing with Gender Equality. Our country has been living with a 50-year old legal instrument regulating employment relations. Indeed, this venerable law managed to stand the test of time mainly through the creativity of our social partners who used the tool of collective agreements as a means to work around the limitations of that law.

These vast changes needed to be regulated for a number of reasons, chief amongst which is the guarantee of social rights as the means to bridle the immense force of globalisation while asserting the need for corporate social responsibility. This is in effect, what my government believes to be its role. Not that of direct intervention in market forces, but a moderator of contemporary economics and a catalyst for change in the economic and social environment. Indeed, I would say that we are seeking to give a heart to economic prosperity.

A fourth theme chosen for debate deals with Industrial relations and the role of the State in the Mediterranean Partners Countries. Again, this is a topic of major importance for us in Malta since the law which I mentioned earlier, includes the overhaul of our industrial relations legislation – an exercise that has generated a lot of public debate because it touches on some hot spots that are considered to be crucial for our economic and social survival. These include the issue regarding what the ILO describes as "essential services" and the need – indeed the collective responsibility – to guarantee that these arterial services continue to be provided under all circumstances because the survival of the country depends on them. The debate is still going on, but I repeat, we can and will find solutions if we apply our common sense and continue to seek what is in the national interest.

I will conclude my address by reiterating my government’s vision to make Malta an active member of the European Union. This vision, is based on sound economics and down to earth common sense.

Barely two weeks ago I was in Geneva attending the annual ILO General Conference. For the past four years, the ILO has taken the opportunity to use this occasion to bring together Ministers of Labour from all EU candidate countries in order to discuss matters of common concern. This year, I had the privilege of chairing this meeting myself. Together with the other 12 candidate countries, we discussed issues related to competitivity and the EU acquis. In other words, we asked ourselves whether it is possible to implement the European Union’s social model, and still achieve competitivity. The ILO itself provided us with a study outlining the economic progress registered by the candidate countries over a period of five years starting from 1995. The study clearly indicated that the process to bring our countries in line with the EU social model, was already translating into significant economic progress for each one of the candidate countries. The message was simple and straightforward. In today’s economic realities, economic progress can only take place if it is accompanied by an intelligent upgrading of the social conditions permeating in the working environment. Similarly, social protection and social improvement generate economic wealth.

As Mediterranean countries, we have a vocation to protect our heritage. The EU recognises the strategic role played by us as countries in the northern Mediterranean region both in terms of geo-politics as well as regional trade. In this sense, I consider this forum as being essential in fostering a unified front to secure regional stability in the Mediterranean through the forging of the best relations with our neighbouring regions.


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Editor: Saviour Balzan
The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07, Malta
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