OPINION | Sunday, 25 November 2007

Lessons from France


The news coming out of France provides us with a lot of food for thought. France was in near chaos over last week, especially with the strike staged by train workers.

Lesson No 1: Protecting the People
How can a country allow itself to be ground to a halt by a few thousand people? Why should the population of any country be held hostage to further the interests of a few?
Last week, the French people faced severe hardship as they were subjected to the worst transport strike in more than a decade. Metropolitan transportation was all but shut down in many cities forcing commuters in Paris and other big cities to cycle or roller skate to work. The striking workers hoped to use this aggravation as leverage to further their cause. Strikes are supposed to be a last resort to put pressure to bear by one side on the other to exceed to its demands.
When a strike concerns a dispute between a company and its workers, the damage that is caused is borne by the owners and the workers. The owners face disruption to their ability to provide goods or services to their clients with the consequent loss of earnings and also loss in their reputation as a stable supplier. The workers lose wages and face the threat of their company crossing the line of sustainability threatening their job.
When it comes to a sector in the public service, where the action does not only affect the parties in the dispute but embraces the public at large, different considerations should apply. The continuation of essential services to the public must be guaranteed at all times. In particular this must apply to the provision of health services, transport services, water supply and energy supply.

Lesson No 2: Abolishing dual standards
The strike was caused by a decision taken by the new French government to avoid the double standard that reigned in France in the way that pensions are enjoyed by the workers.
While French workers are covered by a unified pension plan since 1946 (the “régime général”), many state workers benefit from so-called “régimes spéciaux de retraite” (special pension plans), retaining special plans that include industry-specific benefits and lower retirement ages. These special plans are a historical relic of public sector inefficient management where managers ran companies without bottom line pressures and where they negotiated away the public’s money.
Theoretically these special plans compensate for difficult working conditions, but anyone can cite hundreds of jobs in various public and private sectors where working conditions are much worse.
These dual standards are unfair and undemocratic. The gap between them must be narrowed and brought to nought, and this is said not just in the pensions sector but in other areas such as work ethic, productivity expectations, disciplinary systems and processes, etc.
Having said this, one should be sensitive to the situation of those who have enjoyed certain conditions as part of a compensation package. Therefore, changes that do not give a holistic consideration to a particular situation, or that are implanted abruptly, are uncalled for.
In government I have learned and practised the principle of gradualism. Solutions should be initiated as quickly as possible but they must aim for their full effect to be achieved in the medium term, allowing a transition phase that will disrupt acquired rights. For example in the pension reform we had designed for Malta, we worked in transition provisions that ensured that those who are nearing retirement will not be negatively affected by change. In government one does have the luxury of thinking long term and sow the seeds that will ripen over the years – this is how strong structures are built.

Lesson No 3: Holding our ground
This French saga shows that in such an important socio-economic issue as pensions, France, one of the EU founding members, is well behind Malta and is only now grappling with the problem.
This applies to many other issues when other countries are lagging behind. Therefore, when it comes to our adapting EU across the board dictum to our specific requirements we should be strong and not shy away from holding our ground.

John Dalli is a Nationalist MP


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