The age of living precariously

If the GWU’s long-term objective is to shift back more employees from the private sector to the public sector, then the government should beware, as this is not in the country’s interest.

For quite some time now, the GWU has been waging an intensive and sustained campaign against precarious work. The campaign was targeted mainly at companies in the cleaning sector and providers of security services, who are awarded contracts with government departments and state entities.

The union has even 'named and shamed' a few companies that allegedly employ workers under precarious conditions and has called for such companies to be blacklisted and excluded from government contracts.

In spite of all the loud noises that have been made by the GWU, the issue of what actually constitutes precarious employment has not yet been resolved. On its part, the Malta Employers Association said it would not accept any definition of precarious employment which was not internationally recognised and has refused to be drawn into discussions about any labour market issue which is not measured or properly defined.

There is no doubt that unscrupulous employers were finding loopholes in the law so that the cost of labour would be less than the minimum wage. Having the same 'employee' work as if self-employed for the effects of the labour law and giving him two 'contracts' from two different sister companies belonging to the same owners was one of the tricks. There were others, of course.

The fact that contracts were awarded by the government when the rates quoted for services were in fact less than the cost of a normally employed person earning the minimum wage made things worse. The previous administration issued a number of legal notices to close the loopholes and make such tricks illegal. The GWU acknowledged this but kept on with its campaign against precarious employment. The present administration then decided to impose a number of mandatory conditions to be included in every tender issued by government so as to ensure that any tenderer awarded a contract would not be able to use 'precarious employees'. These conditions include the prohibition of the possibility that the services provided be subcontracted to third parties or carried out by self-employed persons.

In short, these services can be carried out solely by the registered employees of the contractor, who is also obliged to keep records of employees used on the contract. This move brought a reaction from the Chamber of Commerce, which alleged that these changes were unfortunate and ill-timed, as the issue was still being discussed within the MCESD. The Chamber said it feared that the revised regulations would create a number of negative effects on the private sector and on SMEs in particular, as they eliminated the opportunity for certain SMEs to participate in the public tender process. It precluded them from acting as sub-contractors.

In spite of all this, the GWU continues on with its 'holy war' against precarious employment without actually spelling out what this term actually means. This has been the main bone of contention with the associations representing employers who insist on a precise, measurable definition of the term.

In my dictionary 'precarious' means 'risky', or better still 'insecure'. One could argue that the job of a salesperson employed at a retail outlet is insecure, as falling trade could lead to the loss of the job. Giving a wide interpretation of the word 'precarious', I can easily insist that I have had precarious jobs all my life. Most self-employed persons and professionals who depend on attracting clients or customers have 'precarious' jobs, as they are continually risking losing custom to others and their income is in no way secure!

So when is a job 'precarious' according to the GWU and when is it not? Applying such a vague epithet and continuing to wage a holy crusade against a vague notion, even when the authorities have taken all possible steps to avoid the unjust situations that presumably originally led to the use of the term, leads one to start delving deeper into the GWU's agenda on this issue.

Objectively, there are two very interesting facts. The first is the fact that the services regarding which the issue arose have only recently become subject to tenders given to private companies. While the civil service and state entities in the past used to directly employ cleaners and security personnel (read 'watchmen'), there was a conscious attempt by the previous administration to avoid employment with the state and seek these services through 'farming out' to private contractors. From an economic point of view, this made sense. It certainly did not justify the sort of abuse that was going on, but now that legal measures are in pace to avoid this abuse, I would have thought that the situation was different and that the GWU would declare a famous victory.

The second interesting - and somewhat relevant - fact is that, like any other trade union in the free world, the GWU has more clout in the case of members who are state employees than in the case of members who are employees in the private sector. The reasons for this situation are not peculiar to Malta, where the GWU has often been accused of using two weights and two measures when dealing with the rights of employees in the public versus the private sector.

Logically these two facts lead one to the obvious conclusion that union bosses everywhere prefer defending employees in the public sector to those in the private sector. The latter do work that could be done directly by public employees. So is there a hidden agenda behind the GWU's holy war against precarious employment?

Recently the GWU's campaign against precarious employment moved away from cleaning and security and started to focus on clerical work within the health sector, where there are cases of clerical staff being provided by private employees as a service. The GWU has pointed out what it terms to be the injustice of different persons in the same place of work being paid different salaries. In this case the issue is not that the clerical staff engaged by the private service provider are earning less than the minimum wage. Neither is it that they are the victims of some subterfuge, abusing legal loopholes. But the union is defending their 'right' to have equal pay for the same work and accusing the state of exploiting the workers. The GWU's holy war, therefore, becomes even more intriguing.

The GWU has every right and duty to fight against any system that abuses workers, but if its long-term objective is to shift back more employees from the private sector to the public sector, then the government should beware, as this is not in the country's interest.

Perhaps the prime minister's recent remarks during the annual luncheon of the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry, insisting that he was not averse to the outsourcing of public-sector work to private business "if a better job can be done", were actually directed at the socialist dinosaurs in the Workers' Memorial Building, rather than at his immediate listeners!

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