13 July 2005

The Web

No summer holiday

Gejtu Vella, the secretary general of Malta’s second largest trade union, UHM, will be meeting employers’ organisations during the summer to build bridges before the next budget. In the face of a growing gap between Government and the social partners, Gejtu Vella persists in his drive for some sort of national agreement. This will be Gejtu Vella’s second attempt to reach a broad agreement between the social partners after the failure of negotiations for a social pact in January.
But this time Gejtu Vella insists that a national agreement can still be reached in the absence of full consensus between all the organisations representing the social partners.

A year after Malta joined the European Union there is a feeling of disenchantment in the country. As part of the yes campaign did the UHM present too much of a rosy picture of EU membership which is not reflected in today’s realities?
The UHM presented a realistic picture of EU membership. All reports commissioned by the UHM indicated that during the initial period of membership Malta will have to pass through a period of adjustment and change in order to face the problems created by globalisation. Unfortunately, people were given the impression that by joining Europe work and money would come like manna from heaven. People were given the impression that if we don’t join the EU we would starve to death. Presenting the case for membership in this way was a mistake. For months the UHM had made serious evaluations of membership through its reports. All of our reports showed that EU membership would contribute to the country’s economic growth. But in order to reach this goal, Malta needs the adequate structures to reap the benefits.

Before the election the Nationalist Party promised greater participation for civil society in the running of the country. Is Government honouring this commitment?
The country is failing in this objective. Discussions should not take the form of a photo session with the Minister concerned. Discussions should be structured. I am disappointed that the Employment Relations Board, which was due for reappointment seven months ago, has not been reappointed yet.
In this board, trade unions, the government and employers can discuss legislation related to employment. In this board we should be discussing the impact of EU directives such as the proposed working time directive. For some inexplicable reason Government has not reconstituted this board. This is a way of killing structured social dialogue.

But what is the point of discussing without taking concrete decisions?
This is the point. Social dialogue should not be restricted to discussions. It also means taking decisions. The UHM is not afraid of taking hard decisions because it knows that in the absence of decisions we won’t survive globalisation.
The UHM is not of the opinion that full consensus is needed in order to reach agreement. While the constitution can be changed by a two-thirds majority we expect total consensus on a social and economic plan. All international and EU institution ultimately decide after taking a vote. At the end we have to decide. We cannot keep dragging our feet.

Do you see a growing communication gap between Government and the social partners?
In the country there is a negative feeling. The country needs direction agreed upon by all stakeholders. Unfortunately, there is a gap between Government and the social partners. We are trying to build bridges with employers’ organisations. Throughout the summer we will be meeting organisations representing employers and I hope that by October we will have a common position to present to government. Government must understand what the people and employers are facing. We have the opportunity of meeting employers constantly and the feedback we are receiving is that the going is bad.
Admittedly, our summer is hot but the country cannot stop functioning in summer. After Malta joined the EU in 2003, the UHM did not refrain from expressing its disappointment that the government had gone on holiday. The government cannot afford to go on holiday. Today we are insisting that Government should go top gear during the summer months. We should continue working to put in place the structures to be able to reap the fruits of EU membership.

The UHM has always been at the forefront in calling for harsh measures against tax evasion. Considering the sluggish state of the economy is this the appropriate time for clamping down on business through draconian measures against tax evasion?
I disagree. The country must continue in its efforts to collect all taxes due. Tax evasion is theft. To make things worse some of those evading tax are also collecting social benefits. This is intolerable. On the other hand the government should make sure that the tax collection system is efficient. We should not have a taxation system, which allows for the accumulation of arrears. Why don’t we take decisions from day one? Why don’t we take decisions immediately? Why do we permit arrears to accumulate in the millions? This is the major mistake.
Unfortunately, we first allow millions to accumulate without lifting a finger and than when we realise the gravity of the situation we clamp down on abusers like a ton of bricks.

Is the UHM concerned by growing inflation?
There are two levels of inflation. There is imported inflation like the increase in the price of fuel, something which we cannot control. The price of fuel is inflationary but there is nothing much to do about this. On the other hand we have government-induced costs which are also inflationary. We need the necessary checks and balances to ensure that these do not further compound the problems.

After the failure of talks on the social pact, has there been an attempt to renew dialogue between the social partners to resurrect this pact?
There has been no specific attempt but it is to our satisfaction that all stakeholders are appealing for another attempt at negotiating a social pact. When the idea of a social pact was proposed by the UHM, there was an attempt to discredit us. Now various organisations and political parties are talking about plans for economic regeneration. What I find lacking is the courage to state which decisions are necessary.
The UHM has never refrained from stating which decisions are necessary. Our sole proviso was that these decisions should only apply for a particular time frame and that the country should revert back to the original position when this time frame expires. Today even officials of other organisations have recognised that this is the way forward.

Do you think that the General Workers Union is now more receptive to the idea of a social pact?
Articles written by prominent officials of the General Workers Union seem to suggest that the union is much more appreciative of the need to have a social pact. This gives us great satisfaction.

How would you describe the relationship between the major unions?

Why is the Maltese trade union movement still divided?
The major problem is that political parties try to create animosity between the unions for partisan ends. I would like to register my disappointment that in the aftermath of the failed social pact a section of the media tried to push the idea that while the UHM was ready to reach an agreement the GWU blocked this agreement. I think it is a mistake to use unions for partisan ends.

In the absence of a social pact are there any measures which the UHM would be proposing for the next budget?
Yes. The UHM has been working on its proposals for the next budget. But it is premature to disclose this information. The UHM is studying measures, which would increase the country’s competitiveness. We can become more competitive through measures, which facilitate the growth of business. In the light of the current difficult economic situation, businesses can only flourish if they have a greater cash flow.

Do you expect to be consulted before the budget?
It is our right to be consulted. As promoters of the EU membership project we believe that the kind of consultation, which exists at all levels of the EU, should also be applied here. We expect to be engaged in meaningful discussions. But we should not fall short of taking decisions. Unfortunately in this country a lot of discussion does take place but we stop short of taking the necessary decisions.

But is the trade union movement ready to give up anything as regards the conditions of its members?
The UHM recognises global economic realities. Malta is not isolated. Malta is part of the world. Whatever happens in countries like China and India has a direct impact on us. But we cannot compete with these countries by eroding working conditions. We can only compete by improving educational standards in order to attract industries which have an added value. To reach this goal, painful restructuring is necessary.

Education is a long-term process, which takes time, in the immediate future what can be done so that Malta regains its competitive edge?
When we compare our educational statistics with those of other EU countries, it is evident that a lot remains to be done. In the immediate future we should take fiscal measures to encourage and promote entrepreneurs coming to Malta. We need to make the country more attractive for investors. We need to eradicate the bureaucracy, which stifles entrepreneurs and investors.

Many attribute Malta’s problems to the size of the public sector. Do you agree that the public sector is bloated?
I disagree for the simple reason that one has to ask which parts of the public sector are bloated. The civil service is the heart of the country’s administration. We can have more efficiency without demolishing the country’s administrative system.

But do you agree with the prevailing mentality that a job with the government is a job for life?
We cannot expect that government workers are fired for no apparent reason. But we should cultivate a new culture in the country through which an employee changes his or her job three or four times during his working life.

At what stage is the negotiation of a collective agreement for government employees?
Negotiations are at an important stage and I prefer not to comment on these talks.

In 2004 the government had presented a white paper on the reform of the civil service. This white paper included a number of radical proposals like the employment of new government employees on a contractual basis. What happened to this whitepaper?
This white paper is no longer being discussed. It seems that government has stopped the process of discussion on this white paper. We had organised a conference on this issue. Unfortunately this positive initiative to improve and update the civil service to modern realities has been stopped.

In the Biennial report of the Centre for Labour Studies, Godfrey Baldachino refers to differences between two clusters of workers. On one hand one finds a cluster of workers which includes civil servants, who enjoy protection from market forces and on the other hand one finds a second cluster who shoulder the brunt of market forces. Can we speak of two classes of workers?
I do not agree that there are two classes of workers. One can refer to different opportunities and conditions enjoyed by different workers. Opportunities for career advancement exist in both sectors.

But are trade unions firmer when negotiating with the government than when they are negotiating with private employers?
This is a perception perpetuated by some of the employers’ organisations. They say that trade unions are softer with private employers because they are scared of job losses. This is not true. For us this is an old fashioned mentality.

Trade union membership is on the decline. Excluding pensioners, membership in the UHM has declined by 418 from 2001 to 2004. Membership in the General Workers in the same years has declined by nearly 3,000. Are trade unions experiencing a crisis?
In the private sector, we are losing members because some companies are closing down. And as long as this process continues it is possible that we will continue losing members. What is important is that we respond to changes in the labour market, work practices, family modules and the changing aspirations of members. Internally we have a working group analysing these changes. We cannot remain the union of yesterday. We must become the union of tomorrow.

In the same paper, Godfrey Baldachino asked whether the UHM’s drive to reach and overtake the GWU has become a burning ambition. Is this the case?
It is not a burning ambition. Our burning ambition is to grow to an extent where we become numerically strong enough to give the necessary protection to workers.

Trade union membership is weakest in smaller companies where relationships with employers tend to be personal. Are trade unions relevant to workers in small and medium size enterprises?
Trade union membership is important for these workers. One still finds cases where employers simply tell their workers that they are no longer required. Recently I met an employee, who after 15 years of loyal service was simply told that his services are no longer required. In these circumstances this particular worker joined the UHM to get our protection. But it would be much better if these workers offer their solidarity to other workers by joining a trade union in order to benefit from the solidarity of other workers when they need it.
There are also salesgirls who are partly paid in money and partly in kind. These practices are unacceptable. Someone else told me that his workers do not deserve a pay rise because they are allowed to collect empty bottles which can be exchanged for money. These are not exaggerations but daily realities.

Do you agree with the position of the General Workers Union that the government should remain responsible for workers employed by government corporations after these companies are privatised or restructured?
There are two important principles, which should be respected. All workers should give eight hours work for eight hours pay. Secondly we cannot expect that irrespective of what happens the state owes everybody a living. We cannot subsidise bankrupt companies to guarantee a job for life culture. What is important is that corrective measures are taken before companies go bankrupt. What kind of training is being offered for these workers? Who was responsible for informing these workers that there was no future for them in these companies? We cannot simply perpetuate the status quo. The public has a choice to make. If we want to guarantee a job for everyone, we should be willing to pay more taxes.

But do you agree with what has happened in the dockyard and PBS where employees were employed by the government?
If the government really requires their services it should employ them. But we cannot pretend that government employs all those workers who lose their work. We all remember when successive governments employed thousands of workers, which were not needed. The public ended up paying higher taxes for these mistakes. We should do everything possible to keep these workers in employment but the most important thing is to attract foreign and local investment to create more employment opportunities.
Gejtu Vella was interviewed by James Debono

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