15 May 2004

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Social pact June deadline “impossible” - unions

By Kurt Sansone

Government’s publicly stated target to reach an agreement on the social pact by June is unattainable as the working groups set up in the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development have an August deadline to come up with their reports, The Malta Financial and Business Times has learned.
And despite Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi last week reiterating government’s intention to have an agreement in place by June, the two major unions see this as an impossible task.
Last Friday during the customary monthly press briefing, Gonzi said that the June deadline for major social reforms, first mentioned in last year’s budget, was still on government’s cards.
The social changes are being discussed at MCESD level and four working groups have been set up to treat different aspects of the reform, namely competitiveness, public health, social services and the public sector.
As yet only one of the working groups has started to meet, that on competitiveness, while the others are to start meeting shortly. The agenda presented to the MCESD members states that the four committees are to present their final reports by August after which the discussion is taken up by the plenary.
It is expected that MCESD members would continue the discussions on the blueprint for reforms until October, way past the June deadline being suggested by government.
Contacted by The Malta Financial and Business Times, the secretary generals of the two major unions agreed it was “impossible” to have an agreement in place by June.
UHM Secretary General Gejtu Vella said it was “absolutely” not possible to have an agreement by June, adding that to reach an agreement all social partners had to meet.

“At the moment all there is are four working groups at the MCESD and they do not have the time frame to come to a conclusion by June,” Vella said.
“I appreciate the Prime Minister’s wish to have an agreement by June but I don’t see it happening,” Vella told this newspaper.
Similar comments were made by GWU Secretary General Tony Zarb. “It cannot be,” Zarb told The Malta Financial and Business Times when asked whether it was possible for an agreement to be reached by June.
Zarb said the four working groups set up within the MCESD had an August deadline to come up with their respective reports.
“Government is probably insisting on June because it was a pledge made in last year’s budget but it is impossible to have an agreement on such reforms by the stipulated deadline,” Zarb insisted.
Confusion still reigns on the issue of pension reform with unions making little or no distinction between agreement on the social pact and changes in the pensions system.
Minister for Family and Social Solidarity Dolores Cristina yesterday confirmed that the June deadline was still on for an agreement on pension reform. “The working groups do not concern the pensions issue, which is dealt with by the full Council,” Cristina told this newspaper.
Most of the social partners have submitted their reactions to the World Bank Report on pension reforms and depending on the counter proposals received by the MCESD chairman, it has to be established whether further studies are to be conducted.
The general feeling among unions is that the June deadline is too tight a schedule to reach an acceptable agreement between all social partners.
Analysts, however, pointed out to The Malta Financial and Business Times that the June deadline was realistic for pension reforms if these are considered distinct from the social pact. “Gonzi may be pushing for June because he knows that the MCESD has a habit of dragging its feet,” analysts told this newspaper.

kurt@newsworksltd.com



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