21 June 2006


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Business Today



Government backtracks on public holidays

James Debono

The 2004 budget measure through which all Maltese workers lost the right for extra leave days as compensation for public holidays falling on a weekend will no longer apply to workers whose collective agreement states otherwise.
The change in legislation was announced yesterday by government following the damning ruling delivered by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) last week.
Effectively workers whose collective agreement says that they are to be compensated by an extra day of leave when a public holiday falls on a weekend will regain this right after an 18-month lapse.
But the new measure risks perpetuating the divide between two classes of workers according to former finance minister John Dalli.
“I hope that the proposed amendments will not be contributing to increase the discrimination between workers in this country,” Nationalist MP John Dalli told Business Today immediately after the amendments were announced. As a consequence of the amendment presented to parliament yesterday, the 2004 measure on public holidays will only apply for workers who are not covered by a collective agreement or whose collective agreement does not foresee any compensation for public holidays falling on a weekend.
Yesterday’s amendment will change a law introduced by Dom Mintoff’s government, which states that the law on public holidays supersedes collective agreements.
This was the government’s way out of an impasse brought about by a ruling of the ILO, which rebuked it for not abiding to international conventions when legislating on public holidays.
According to Alfred Mallia Milanes, a leading consultant on industrial relations, the government was “correct in following the ILO’s recommendations by amending the law” but he also points out that government’s decision yesterday defeats the original purpose of legislation which was aimed at reducing the number of leave days in order to increase productivity.
“If the government was really determined to reach this aim, it should have legislated by decreasing the number of public holidays rather than trying to find an easy way out,” says Mallia Milanes.
Former Minister John Dalli concurs saying that his only misgiving on the government’s original measure was that it did not decrease the number of public holidays on a permanent basis.
“I am in favour of the reduction of public holidays as I believe that in Malta we have an excessive number of non-productive days. This is one of the factors pushing our costs up and our competitiveness down. If I have to
criticise the measure taken in 2004, it is for having the public holidays removed when they fall in weekends and not permanently.”
But back in 2004 the government opted for a less drastic measure, which did not effect the income of those working on a shift basis. In this way those working on public holidays falling on a weekend continued being paid extra for doing so.
The former Finance Minister insists that the government has a right to make adjustments to its legislation on public holidays.
Contacted on the morning before the government final decision was announced, John Dalli simply said: “I believe Government should carry on with its decision.”
But according to Mallia Milanes the government was correct in implementing the ILO’s decision.
“The raison d’etre of this organisation is collective bargaining between the social partners. The ILO is simply saying that agreements between the social partners should always be honoured.”
While considering the amendments to the law as a “victory for trade unions” Mallia Milanes warned that trade unions now have the onus of responsibility on them.
“Trade Unions have to understand that we are no longer living in the 1970s or 1980s and that we are living in a world where competition is harsh. In this environment unions must accept that the ultimate aim of any collective agreement is that of safeguarding jobs.”
He also warned employers that they can no longer expect a legal fix to this problem and they will have to persuade trade unions to accept harsher conditions on the negotiating table.
The government’s solution should have pleased former General Workers Union Deputy General Secretary Manwel Micallef.
Speaking to Business Today before the government decision was announced Micallef argued that short of ignoring international conventions the government had two options: either repeal the 2004 measure in its entirety or amend it in order to exempt workers covered by a collective agreement which states otherwise.
But Micallef disputed the government claim that the measure has contributed to any gains in productivity.
“The impact on productivity has been negligible especially because many workers work on a shift basis,” Micallef said.
He also disagreed with any reduction of public holidays on a permanent basis as suggested by the Malta Employers’ Association.
“This could be interpreted as a vendetta against the unions. It would not contribute to creating a good climate of industrial relations.”

jdebono@mediatoday.com.mt



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