28 January 2004

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Taking it to the streets
General Workers’ Union Secretary General Tony Zarb speaks to David Lindsay about Malta’s rising unemployment on the eve of yesterday’s 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 Malta’s workforce has seen over recent months.
"The first," Zarb explains at his Valletta office on Monday in the lead up to yesterday evening’s 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 GWU’s 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, Malta’s 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 Malta’s 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 don’t 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 year’s 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 materialised."
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 Malta’s 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 hasn’t 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 today’s 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 wouldn’t be the first time that we’ve 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 Union’s 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 and figures."
Judging from yesterday’s 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 Malta’s social partners will heed the call is another story altogether.

Copyright © Newsworks Ltd. Malta.
Editor: Saviour Balzan
The Malta Financial & Business Times, Newsworks Ltd, Vjal ir-Rihan, San Gwann
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