Eight hours of closed-door meetings between government and social partners yesterday only served to confirm what was already public knowledge, even if the impending budget day gave it an aura of urgency.
With the social pact scrapped for good, unions and employers were presented with a picture of the crisis being faced by Enemalta following the international oil price hikes and the increases to electricity bills.
Later in the afternoon, Finance Parliamentary Secretary Tonio Fenech made a presentation of the government’s planned budget measures.
“There is never agreement about the budget,” Fenech afterwards told journalists gathered at the Holiday Inn hotel in Sliema, where the day-long meetings of the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development were held.
No other MCESD meeting has been scheduled so far for before Wednesday, when the budget will be made public in Parliament, although Fenech said he was willing to listen to proposals “until an hour before the budget”.
Parliamentary Secretary Tonio Fenech said government was aiming to reduce public expenditure by 1.5 per cent, excluding the expenditure on social security, health and education.
“That is quite a substantial amount which should mitigate as much as possible the need to take further measures,” he said, although the deficit would still require some tough measures to be announced in the budget speech.
The Chairman of the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development, Victor Scicluna, said that “as a realist” he could not say the social partners were anywhere near reaching an agreement.
His draft social pact presented last week proposing the elimination of seven vacation days and a limit on overtime rates was rejected outright by the unions. Yesterday he said he had no qualms about the disagreement as he had done his best to synthesise the social partners’ positions.
UHM Secretary General Gejtu Vella was noncommittal on the new electricity tariffs.
“They will definitely have an impact,” he said. “We still have to see what kind of impact the new tariffs will have on workers, their families and pensioners.”
GWU Secretary General Tony Zarb said: “We’ve made our contribution during the discussions. We’re not the only union to disagree with the proposals that would put further burdens on the workers. The government should pay heed to our requests.”
Chamber of Commerce President Louis Apap Bologna said his organisation viewed the government’s proposals to face the impending prices at Enemalta because of the increase in oil prices as “very positive,” but the President of the Malta Employers’ Association, Arthur Muscat, was critical of the discussions.
“If it is accepted that the country needs economic expansion and more productive work, and that government has to tackle the deficit, then from what we’ve heard today it doesn’t seem these problems are going to be addressed,” Muscat said. “Consensus doesn’t seem at all near, as we’ve witnessed in the last three months. However, lack of consensus doesn’t mean we won’t be facing these problems. Someone has to shoulder responsibility and take the necessary decisions otherwise this country will remain stuck.”
The President of Federation of Industry, Anton Borg, said it was still unclear what new burdens will have to be shouldered by industry. Alfred Buhagiar, of the Confederation of Malta Trade Unions, said it was clear that most of the burdens were to be shouldered by the workers.
“The burdens should be shouldered by everyone,” he said. “Currently they are being thrown onto one sector of society, which is unacceptable. From today’s meeting government knows what it shouldn’t do to put more burdens on workers.”
The General Retailers and Traders’ Association did not attend yesterday’s meetings.