News | Sunday, 20 September 2009

Bookmark and Share

‘This government is its own worst enemy’

These are tense moments for the social partners, as communication with government appears to have broken down completely. What does trade unionist GEJTU VELLA expect from Budget 2010? Social justice

When a man of Gejtu Vella’s reputation gives just four marks out of 10 to Lawrence Gonzi’s government’s performance, it leads you to understand that something is really rotten in the state of Denmark.
At the helm of the Union Haddiema Maqghudin (UHM) for the past 11 years, this secretary general has dealt with the Fenech Adami, Sant and Gonzi administrations. By his own admission, his hands have never been as full of issues to handle as these past few months.
I ask him why he gives such a low performance rating to the present administration.
“This government is its own worst enemy,” he says without hesitation. It is more than evident, he adds, that Lawrence Gonzi’s cabinet has lost its collegiality, to the extent that ministers and parliamentary secretaries are not in sync with each other, unaware what the other is doing, or what has been decided, or simply not capable of deciding anything at all.
“I honestly don’t know why this is happening, but I may dare to think that it is highly possible that this administration is seriously fatigued...”
So what about the Prime Minister? What rating does Gejtu Vella give to Lawrence Gonzi as Commander in chief?
“To his credit, I believe that Lawrence Gonzi is much better than the government he leads, but then he is not the government and government is not him.”
So what is the stumbling block?
Gejtu Vella argues that this administration has put aside the principle of dialogue, as widely preached by the PN administrations since 1981 and put into practice since 1987.
“Those days seem to be just part of history, and from the principle of dialogue, we are now in a situation where government is not capable of communicating with the social partners.”
He adds that it is unacceptable that in a country as small as ours, often described as the size of a major EU city, government seems to have lost its footing in being a prime mover for dialogue and working with social partners towards long-term solutions.
Giving a few examples, Gejtu Vella says that it is unacceptable that industrial relations are kept on the backburner, with nobody deciding what is to be done.
“Industrial relations are about people and not numbers, and this is why my union has been insisting that government settle all pending issues, especially within the health sector, where we are left with no choice but to resort to industrial action.
“Why did we have to come this far, when in most cases all it would entail is common sense to correct an administrative mistake or injustice?”
Gejtu Vella calls it “indifference,” and he insists that government has developed an attitude of indifference towards all that is “social”.
Gejtu Vella’s claim on “indifference” is further explained through what he defines as the “general perception” among the population on many issues.
“We are witnessing a situation where people just don’t believe anything the government says. It seems to have lost its credibility, and this is because of its inaction on many issues.
Law and order, Vella explains, is a clear example.
“Government says that a lot is being done, while people think otherwise. Another example is cleanliness. We hear so much about government doing this and that, and yet the country remains shabby and dirty...”
But “indifference” also comes in another form, possibly worse than the latter. And this is political indifference.
Gejtu Vella claims that the way government has implemented certain reforms, and also handled the introduction of the revised water and electricity tariffs, caused serious damage not only to the country, but most of all to the serenity of relations between the social partners who sit around the table at the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development (MCESD).
“We went through a very sour experience,” he says, while adding that it was unbelievable to have a minister admit just days before the EU parliament elections in June that with hindsight, the new tariffs should not have been backdated.
“Why such indifference, when we warned him about how people would have been affected?” he asked.
“In truth we went through a total breakdown in communications between government and social partners,” Vella said, while expressing his sincere hope that in the build-up to the forthcoming budget things will be handled much better.
Gejtu Vella concedes that government is faced with an economy in recession and is also restricted in finances due to a serious deficit problem.
However, he argues, this does not excuse government from dialogue and consultation with social partners.
“This is the time to be open with social partners,” he claims, insisting on the importance of considering the MCESD as a think-tank that could provide the right answers to the problems the country is facing at the moment.
With the opportunity to sign a social pact missed in 2004, Gejtu Vella is of the opinion that although convergence towards this is now “unlikely”, it is not an impossible task.
“For the first time since the social pact talks, the MCESD have this year achieved a major milestone with respect to inter-social partners relations.”
The UHM secretary general tells me that all social partners – except government – have come up with a common position paper in response to government’s pre-budget document.
But what does Gejtu Vella expect from the next budget?
“I expect social justice,” he says, while insisting that notwithstanding the current economic scenario, “government must be careful not to just embark on an accounting exercise to curb its deficit, but to address the social aspect of its decisions.”
He explains his view that Malta has developed into a two-tier society: in the first tier you find the educated citizens who manage to cope with advancement, while in the second tier you get those who are simply left behind and who have now started to slip through the so-called “safety net”.
Gejtu Vella is all in favour of government curbing abuse in social benefits, but questions the penalties.
“Who is caught abusing benefits is simply asked to refund the money and it stops there. Why? As far as I know social benefit fraud is theft of public funds, just like stealing from a shop or a household. So why is it that it is not otherwise punishable the way it should be?”
Back to his assessment on government’s performance, Gejtu Vella has words of praise for finance minister Tonio Fenech.
He describes him as young, energetic and a man one could talk to and come to some form of agreement.
But Tonio Fenech is the same minister who this week shot down the Malta Employers Association (MEA)’s proposal for government to fork out €12 million as part-burden of the expected wage increase of €5 to €6 per week in Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) to employees...
“Government is right not to accept to pay out the €12 million as that would come from the same workers’ tax money,” Vella stresses, adding that COLA is the agreed mechanism that has worked for the past few years and has helped maintain industrial stability.
“Competitiveness does not come solely from labour costs, but from a number of other factors, too.”
So what about MEA’s warnings of layoffs, should the projected increase be announced in the budget?
Gejtu Vella makes it clear that employers have a right to stick to their position, but no right to threaten government and unions with redundancies.
At this point the UHM secretary-general brings out his calculator and cites the example of a fictitious company with 100 employees.
“With a €6 per week increase for 52 weeks, this will add up to €31,000 in a year. Tell me now: would €31,000 make or break the company’s competitiveness? Doesn’t the company make any profit?” the trade union leader asks.
Trade unions and employers sit on the committee that monitors the National Statistics Office’s COLA calculations, and any changes that come about must be made with all parties’ consent.
“We as UHM are not against any possible changes, however these must be agreed in unison,” Vella insists.
With GDP expected to have shrunk by 1% in real terms this year, the outlook for next year is still on the negative side. Vella calls on all social partners to work together towards safeguarding the present jobs and helping in the creation of new work places.
“Next year will not be an easy ride and we all must be cautious in our approach. What is important is that we keep industrial serenity, and that government plays its part by listening well to what we have to say. Once again, it is vital that government does not forget the social aspect of any decision it takes.”

Any comments?
If you wish your comments to be published in our Letters pages please click button below.
Please write a contact number and a postal address where you may be contacted.



Download MaltaToday Sunday issue front page in pdf file format

All the interviews from Reporter on MaltaToday's YouTube channel.


A tight space for the economy


Saviour Balzan
The cabinet meets

Raphael Vassallo:
The morning after the century before

Evarist Bartolo
Tapping a huge world education market

Claudine Cassar
The flaws in taking on single mothers

David Friggieri
Le temps qui reste

Copyright © MediaToday Co. Ltd, Vjal ir-Rihan, San Gwann SGN 9016, Malta, Europe
Managing editor Saviour Balzan | Tel. ++356 21382741 | Fax: ++356 21385075 | Email