Taking it to the streets
General Workers Union Secretary General Tony
Zarb speaks to David Lindsay about Maltas rising unemployment
on the eve of yesterdays demonstration in Valletta
General Workers Union Secretary General Tony Zarb
is a man with three things on his mind, and all are related to the spate
of redundancies Maltas workforce has seen over recent months.
"The first," Zarb explains at his Valletta office on Monday
in the lead up to yesterday evenings mass protest in Valletta,
"is that we are facing a situation in Malta in which unfortunately
we are losing a lot of jobs, especially over the last months. The second
is that the fact that a number of employers are aiming to reduce workers
conditions of employment.
His third objective is the GWUs main message, which it hopes to
bring about through the new campaign, is that "we want work and
that we want to do everything we can to help create jobs for our workers."
The campaign, which kicked off yesterday, has been labelled www.bidritt,
with www standing for We Want Work - not the
World Wide Web.
Zarb explains the thought process behind the campaign, which differs
from the last time the GWU took their concerns to the streets in that
this time the union, Maltas largest, is not protesting government
measures but instead aims to convey the message that the union is there
to lend a helping hand.
He explains, "Basically, we will be asking government to take action
over Maltas rising unemployment levels, while also telling government
that we are ready and willing to help to remedy the situation with all
the resources we have at our disposal.
"We aim to make government acknowledge the situation, on which
it has been silent, recognise that there is a problem and that we, as
the General Workers Union, are prepared to help it create more
jobs here in Malta - not only blame government for the situation."
Reacting to recent criticisms related to the campaign, Zarb comments,
"People are attacking the General Workers Union, but no one
is understanding the thrust of our campaign. What we are saying that
we have to attack Malta bureaucracy, we have to talk with new investors
so we can encourage them to invest in Malta. We have to do everything
we can to try and create jobs and we are prepared to do just that.
"But the thing is that many say we dont need demonstrations,
that what we need is dialogue. But it is our view that the discussion
period is now finished. The time for talking is over and we now have
to act with concrete suggestions and decisions.
"The Union is being attacked for organising a demonstration, but
we have the right to demonstrate. All over Europe you see workers demonstrating,
and the GWU in Malta is holding a demonstration to bring forward the
message that we want work. These critics must bear in mind that this
demonstration is not an industrial action at all, we will not be interfering
with any work in Malta. We are not telling workers who are working at
the time of the protest to abandon their stations and come to demonstrate."
Referring to last years electoral pledges, Zarb has harsh words
for government, "Before the last general elections, we at the General
Workers Union gave a very clear signal to all the political parties
that if they make a commitment to the people, especially the workers,
then they should abide by that commitment and deliver what has been
promised. For example, the party now in government had promised the
people that they would have work, work, work. To date, this has not
I mention the recent VF Clothing redundancies, but Zarb is adamant that
the incident is symptomatic of the larger problems faced by not just
manufacturing, but by the tourism industry as well.
In terms of manufacturing, I ask Zarb if he agrees that certain lines
of the manufacturing businesses have simply become uncompetitive on
a global scale.
"It is very clear that we are facing a situation in which we are
losing competitiveness, but what we have to do is identify exactly why
we are losing this competitiveness. Is it because of the workers, or
the global environment? We need a study into the scenario to see exactly
what the problem is. I believe this needs to be done on a national level
with the involvement of all Maltas social partners and government.
"Another problem is that we are not seeing any kind of new investment
coming into Malta and from our side we are saying that we have to remove
all the bureaucracy associated with new investments in Malta because
we are losing chances to improve our levels of employment."
He refers to the recent incident in which a firm coming to Malta to
produce electric cars has threatened to pull out due to the huge amount
of red tape it is facing.
Zarb comments, "This company first came to Malta about two and
a half years ago and we were the people to encourage them to come Malta
and start operations here. Now we are sorry and worried about the fact
that till now this project hasnt got off the ground. Just last
week we sent this firm a letter asking them not to abandon their plans
for Malta. The problem is that they have been waiting for an answer
from government for about 13 months. In todays world, businesses
cannot afford to wait so long for an answer and in the meantime they
could have moved from Malta to anywhere else in the world - and they
were expecting to employ some 400 to 500 workers.
"Along these lines, another thing we are suggesting is that we,
as the General Workers Union, are prepared to meet all new investors
to Malta before they come here so we encourage them to establish their
projects in Malta. We have even told the prime minister that we are
prepared to do so.
"This wouldnt be the first time that weve done this
kind of thing. About five years ago we were asked by then Malta Freeport
Chairman Marin Hili to form part of a delegation to Marseilles to meet
the new investors in the Malta Freeport, CMA. We also went to Cyprus
with the Freeport.
"More recently, just weeks ago, we were involved in discussions
with the owner of seven luxury yachts, joined by the Malta Drydocks
Chairman, to encourage him to come here to Malta to have work carried
out on his vessels.
"From our side, we have shown that we are prepared to do our part
in creating more jobs for the Maltese. Because we believe that we should
create more jobs, we are prepared to do this kind of thing. This is
all over and above the Unions normal workload, and when we hear
attacks against us claiming that we are carrying out this campaign just
for publicity purposes, we feel these to be unfounded."
In addition to the problem of redundancies, Zarb also cites the fact
that certain employers are considering cutting workers benefits
as another major problem.
He explains, "We are not only facing the problem of unemployment,
we are also facing the problem that employers are telling their workers
that they have to cut from their benefits.
"One example is the biggest factory in Malta, STMicroelectronics,
where the management is telling workers they will have to cut from their
benefits. ST employs 2,400 workers. In a letter we received, ST made
it clear it will seek to cut overtime pay to 1.5 instead of double time.
"Essentially, what they are saying is that they want to ask government
to exclude them from part of the industrial law. If in this new era,
employers are going to keep asking the government to exclude them from
part of the law, which was passed just last year, it would be unacceptable.
"We are also seeing a lot of workers being very negatively impacted
after receiving the announcement they have been sacked from their workplace.
What we are saying to government is that we have to deal with all these
displaced workers, especially the younger ones, who are now in very
bad situations in respect of bank loans and other regular expenses.
"We also need to see the government becoming more involved when
we have a situation such as that at VF. What we are saying is that in
such circumstances the minister should call a meeting between the employer,
himself and the unions to discuss the situation.
"Nothing like this is happening in Malta. Not only is government
silent, it is giving the impression that there is no problem at all.
It is not recognising that there is a problem. Especially when you hear
the President of Malta, the Archbishop, the other two political parties
and many others declaring the gravity of the situation and discussing
it, and then we have the government giving us nothing but figures, figures
Judging from yesterdays turnout, the first demonstration in the
www.bidritt campaign, public interest in the state of affairs is running
high and the GWU should expect popular support for its movement. But
whether government and Maltas social partners will heed the call
is another story altogether.