MaltaToday | 16 July 2008 | Gatt offers compensation in last ditch attempt to end strike

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NEWS | Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Gatt offers compensation in last ditch attempt to end strike

Karl Schembri

Transport Minister Austin Gatt yesterday offered thousands of euros to the Motor Hearses Association as a compensation for the decision to liberalise their market, MaltaToday can reveal.
The offer was made behind the scenes in the ongoing backdoor negotiations between the minister and the association through the intervention of an unnamed mediator.
According to the President of the Federation of Public Transport, Victor Spiteri, the minister was offering €60,000 to the association to be distributed among its 10 members.
“After deciding on his own and against a previous agreement to liberalise motor hearses, the minister has now offered to pay compensation to the association,” Spiteri said yesterday night, at the end of the second day of the nation-wide strike ordered by the federation.
“While it’s true the agreement with the previous minister was unsigned, it was put into effect, so much so that the motor hearses association bought the new vehicles on the understanding that no new licences would be given. To me, Gatt’s offer is a clear admission of a political blunder, a big political mistake, even though he deliberately failed to tell the public that he made the offer,” Spiteri added.
A spokesman for the minister confirmed that an offer was made to the association but said the amount quoted by Spiteri was wrong, without divulging the correct amount.
“I confirm that when the minister was approached by a mediator, one of the offers was to give a one-time payment to the association to be able to organise itself and face a liberalised market,” the spokesman said.
“It is not yet a decision, it is only an offer, but the fact that Victor Spiteri is speaking about this in public and to the media is totally wrong. This is not the way to keep mediation going; it harms all mediation attempts.”
In fact, the minister made no mention of the offer in a press conference he gave yesterday evening, just limiting himself to confirming that a mediator between him and the federation was involved.
Spiteri said the motor hearses’ association – which formed part of the federation of public transport – had declined the minister’s offer yesterday, although the minister’s spokesman said no official reaction was forthcoming from the transport organisation.
“It’s only the minister’s way to cover up his political blunder,” Spiteri said. “The number of people who die everyday is between seven and eight, the supply is keeping up with the demand perfectly. So on what criteria did he liberalise the market?”
Gatt, however, said there were no agreements with former transport minister Jesmond Mugliett.
“There were several drafts, among which they were requesting that hearse operators would all have to be members of their association, that they would not need a clean criminal record and that their licence is renewed automatically,” he said.
Spiteri reiterated that his federation would only call off the strike if the government withdrew the new permits issued in the hearses market.
“Government has to withdraw those permits for us to resume the service,” he said when asked how long the federation was willing to keep its actions ongoing. “I call on the minister with all responsibility to admit his mistake, go back on it, and we will resume the service.”
Spiteri’s call was also echoed by representatives of the hearse owners’ association.
“We don’t agree with the compensation,” said John Bray, president of the Motor Hearses’ Association, also confirming the offer was in the region of €60,000.
Asked if the association was expecting a higher offer, Bray said: “It’s not a question of compensation. The new licenses have to be revoked for the strike to be called off.”
The minister was however adamant about a liberalised hearse market.
“There is no turning back, the decision is final and irreversible,” a spokesman said.
Earlier, the minister expressed his perplexity at the strike actions, saying the government and the federation were in agreement about the way forward to reform the bus service.
“We’re essentially in agreement, so I can’t understand why the federation is adopting this attitude,” Gatt said. “I spoke to Victor Spiteri, who told me he wanted everything in writing, so I gave him my word in writing about the plan. By the end of September they will have our proposals for a reform to public transport, then they will get back to us and we’ll proceed from there.
“There is absolutely nothing to justify the strike. … Bus drivers seem to believe that we will be selling their buses or something of the sort. The truth is there is an EU obligation to open the public transport service through a tender, and this we will do in agreement with them. Our main aim is to have a public transport service that respects the clients.”

Second day of strikes
The second day of the drivers’ strike started with dramatic clashes early in the morning yesterday, when demonstrators targeted the emergency services offered by unarmed AFM soldiers and transport authority officials.
Within an hour since the service was launched at around 6am, mobs were forcing passengers to get out of the education division buses, destroying windscreens and even removing and seizing the keys of the vehicles.
By 7:30am, the service was called off by the minister in view of the widespread intimidation, leaving thousands of commuters stranded throughout the day.
Gatt said the government could no longer offer the emergency service and insisted with the transport federation to offer it itself.
“In all truth I believe it is immoral that you, who benefit from this monopoly, did not offer it (emergency service) from the start,” the minister wrote in a letter to Spiteri. “But now that government is being impeded through violence from offering it, I believe you would be neglecting your duties if you do not offer this service voluntarily.”
Transport services to and from the airport and the sea passenger terminal however resumed after the heavy intervention of police and the Parliamentary Secretary for Tourism, Mario De Marco.
Asked about the prolonging stalemate, the minister said every dispute in the past had been solved, expressing his optimism that common sense will prevail.
Traffic proceeded more smoothly towards Valletta yesterday as opposed to Monday, as the buses opened one lane in and out of St Anne Street.
Pressed about the coaches parked illegally to block the traffic flow, Gatt said: “What is a legitimate protest? I don’t like what they’re doing and there’s a limit to my patience, but carcades happen in the EU and at least now they have left one lane open to the rest of the drivers.”

GRTU reactions
Meanwhile GRTU president Vince Farrugia slammed Gatt for “stirring all the trouble” through his “unwarranted, premature statements”.
“On the one hand, our members, particularly shop owners in Valletta, are suffering because of this strike, but on the other government cannot go on in this way,” Farrugia said.
“We’re worried about all the other sectors which are not liberalised, like pharmacies, stevedores and petrol stations. What Gatt did was to stir things by liberalising a sector without going through the normal channels: issuing a White Paper, opening the debate, and taking it from there.
“We’re now used to the European model of doing things, but if there is a change in policy, into one of governing by diktat, then they should declare it. The truth is that this flame has been instigated by government, thanks to Austin Gatt’s wild statements about liberalisation. We’re a small community, so liberalisation has to be sensible. Empty talk like Gatt’s is only bound to make things worse.”

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