12 January 2005

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Social partners to meet Tonio Fenech today

By Kurt Sansone

The social partners will this morning meet Parliamentary Secretary Tonio Fenech in what appears to be a last ditch attempt to resolve the impasse created by Government’s decision to forge ahead with plans to curb the number of public holidays to boost competitiveness.
The meeting, which is not under the auspices of the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development, was requested by the UHM after discussions held two weeks ago failed to reach an agreement on the issue.
This morning’s meeting comes in the wake of a mass demonstration held last Monday and which was attended by nine unions including the GWU, the Malta Union of Teachers (MUT), the Malta Union of Bank Employees (MUBE) and the Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses (MUMN). It was the UHM and the central administration of the Confederation of Trade Unions (CMTU) that opted out of the protest march pending today’s meeting.
Monday’s march was historic in that for the first time it brought together nine unions who walked down Republic Street under one banner calling on Government to “stop” imposing its decision on workers.
Speaking to The Malta Financial and Business Times yesterday GWU Secretary General Tony Zarb said his union will be approaching today’s meeting “full of courage”.
“We have to first see whether Government understood Monday’s message not to go ahead and impose measures that detract from employees’ working conditions,” Zarb said when asked what his expectations were for this morning’s meeting with Tonio Fenech.
“It must be noted that this meeting is outside the remit of the MCESD, unlike all previous meetings held to discuss the best way forward to boost the country’s competitiveness. My interpretation of this situation is that Government is giving the MCESD secondary importance,” Zarb said.
When confronted with the Prime Minister’s assertion that Government had given enough time for discussions to be held and a solution found, Zarb insisted that it wasn’t a question of Government “giving the social partners time”.
Zarb added: “Government was there discussing with us at the MCESD and after four months during which various issues were raised, some unrelated to a social pact, there were a lot of points on which unanimous agreement was reached. Then in the final meeting before the budget the MCESD chairman came up with a list of 22 proposals, some of which were unacceptable to the unions. There was a lot of common ground between Government and employers during this meeting. It must be noted that contrary to what Tonio Fenech said it was not the GWU that abandoned the meeting but the it was the MCESD chairman himself who discontinued the meeting after seeing that agreement on the proposals was not possible.”
In the absence of an agreement, in the budget Gonzi announced Government’s decision to stop public holidays that fall on a weekend from being added on to employees’ vacation leave. However, this proposal which meant a change in the Industrial Relations Act was highly contested by the unions since it impinged on legally binding collective agreements. Government risked a flurry of court challenges that would have nullified the prospected impact of such a measure on productivity.
At the turn of the year Gonzi announced a U-turn, saying he intended to amend the Public Holidays Act instead. The latest proposal meant that Gonzi would have to declare a number of public holidays falling on the weekend as normal working days. The decision would not be legally challengeable but it would also mean that employees who are normally paid a premium for working on public holidays would lose such a benefit.
Parliament is currently discussing a bill to implement the budget measures and although the public holidays issue has not yet been raised it is likely that after today’s meeting a clearer picture would emerge on what course of action both Government and unions would be taking.

kurt@newsworksltd.com



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