“It’s a new form of slavery” – says GWU chief on rig worker issue

Kevin Schembri Orland

Sunday 28 August 2022, 08:30
Last updated: about 2 hours ago

A proposal made by the General Union of Workers for the next government budget concerns the drafting of legislation for gig and platform workers, so that they start to be considered employees.

“Currently, they are not considered employees because they do not have an employer. For this reason, they do not even benefit from the basic guarantees provided by law, since many of them receive a commission or are hired through a contractor, and a number under the latter see many reduced benefits. We believe that these workers should be considered as employees so that they have legal protection, said Josef Bugeja, General Secretary of the GWU.

He sat down with The Malta Independent Sunday for an interview. When asked if these workers were exploited, he replied: “Certainly. I always said it.

“It’s a new form of slavery. Many Maltese complain when they see these workers running around. They do this because many of them are paid on commission. And they don’t have enough protection. When there’s an accident, everyone feels sorry for them, but are we doing enough to protect them?

When asked if there was any movement in terms of regulating this issue, he said the GWU, along with the Department of Industrial Relations and the Malta Employers Association, had spoken up. “The ministry has introduced new regulations, even in the distribution of their time since they do not have fixed schedules, but to move forward, these workers must start to be considered as employees. Even the EU is drafting legislation on platform workers.”

The Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) is expected to increase significantly, up to €8 or possibly €10. The Malta Chamber of Commerce has suggested that workers who have had a pay rise this year should not receive the full COLA and that they should only get the difference between the COLA increase that will be announced by the government and the increase they would have already received this year.

Bugeja said the GWU “completely disagrees” with the House’s proposal.

“The COLA agreement has been in place for many years and has never been removed. We had discussions in the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development (MCESD) in the past, but it never came to fruition (…) We agreed on some aspects but it did not move forward .

However, he said that on the eve of the Budget, “we are not trying to change the regulations like that”.

“You should also keep in mind that this compensation is what workers have already lost in terms of purchasing power due to inflation.”

When the COLA agreement was signed, there were questions about the collective agreements already in place, whether the COLA was going to be on top of or part of the increase the government was already paying. Since then, collective agreements have developed and we, in each collective agreement, insert a clause indicating whether the COLA is part of the increase or if the increase is in addition to it.

If there’s an agreement that workers will get a pay rise of €5 a week on top of the COLA, “then you can’t come in and just change the regulations and say if the COLA is €10, that’s worker would only receive €5 in terms of COLA, because the remaining €5 has already been paid,” he said.

He said that according to the recommendations of the International Labor Organization, no one could interfere in free collective bargaining, no one could change what had been agreed.

As for the argument that if COLA goes up in all areas, prices will also go up, he was asked if he was worried about that and if he thought it could happen.

“We are worried about the whole situation – worried about the war in Ukraine, about prices, about workplaces, about competitiveness, about inflation… But we don’t think the solution is for employees, who are supposed to receive, say, €10 due to inflation, which has already impacted them, not to receive this amount. The problem will not be solved like that.

He said the GWU, in its pre-budget document, had a number of proposals on how to resolve the situation, the main one being that the government should continue to absorb the difference in international prices for energy, fuel and cereals.

“The COLA is linked to inflation, it is a salary adjustment.” He said that in the private sector, the COLA is excluded from salary increases in many collective agreements, but in the public sector, many collective agreements stipulate that the increase includes the COLA. “As far as the public sector is concerned, in the lower echelons of public administration, it is likely that the COLA will be higher than what was written in their collective agreement, and we must find a solution to this. In fact, meetings are scheduled with the unions to talk about it and see exactly what will happen.

Future talks

With regard to Finance Minister Clyde Caruana’s statement that if employers want changes they need to discuss them at shop floor level with the unions, he was asked whether the GWU would be willing to hold such discussions on COLA in relation to other issues.

He said yes, but not for this year. “We have proposed in our pre-budget document that we are ready to discuss, for the future, not for now, that in the years to come we can adjust the mechanism.”

“We are proud to have a strong social dialogue. So let’s do that, but not now. Now the mechanism is there, the COLA is being worked on, the independent council is monitoring and we are not going to touch anything in the last six weeks before the budget. It will not be modified now.

He said the Union was open to discussing how to improve the mechanism in the future, pointing out that the Union had complained in the past when the COLA was low.

“But this time, we will certainly not accept that the price increase is absorbed by the employees. Between 2010 and today, the COLA average was €2.88. There were occasions when it was €0.58 and others when it was close to €6, but on many occasions it was €1.75.

Are wages increasing enough?

When asked if he thought salaries, in general, had increased enough, he replied: “In my opinion, no, not enough. But are they going up? Yes, because of the lack of employees and employers are poaching…especially when it comes to employees with technical skills.

In terms of budget proposals, the Union wants to see investment in trade schools. Other budget proposals include a call for increased pensions and equal pay for jobs of equal value, among others.

“There is also our call for compulsory union membership; to avoid abuse.

Questioned on this question because employees have the right not to join a union, he declared: “There is the right of association. Therefore, if you have the right to associate, you also have the right not to associate. What we offer is, and even the The International Labor Organization (ILO) says that as long as you don’t make it compulsory to join a specific union, then that’s fine.

“We had said why we wanted to introduce this, because there is a lot of abuse and not everyone can be protected. Just look at the statistics. Take the gender pay gap – where the workplace is organized by a union, there is none, but elsewhere there is… When the workplace is organized by a union, everyone is motivated to move forward. Today, the relationship between a union and an employer is collaborative. It’s not confrontational. »

As for employees who do not want to join a union, he said that under the proposal, if someone doesn’t want to join a union, they can. “But they also benefit from wage increases and benefits provided by the union. So there could be a fund used for educational purposes for unions, for capacity building, for studies and that person can contribute to that.

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