‘Good will’ is owed to workers, too

New regulations contain aspects that are, in fact, already stipulated elsewhere in Malta’s labour laws – though not necessarily in such detail, and not necessarily extended to all categories of employee

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

The Equality Ministry’s recent U-turn over new vacation leave regulations speaks volumes about the balance of power in Malta’s industrial relations today. 

On 14 August, the ministry announced a number of amendments to current leave regulations – among other aspects relevant to employment law – to be enforced by January 2019.

The new regulations stipulated that: “the employer may only utilise up to the equivalent of 12 working days from the annual leave entitlement for the purposes of any type of shutdown [...]”; that “once leave from the annual entitlement has been agreed to by the employer and employee, it can only be cancelled if both sides agree”; that “annual leave shall continue to accrue in favour of an employee during the period when they are on maternity, injury or sick leave”; and that “in case of termination of employment, all the leave accrued during a period of maternity leave, sickness or injury that had not been availed of, must be paid in accordance with the Organisation of Working Time Regulations.”

Other regulations extend existing benefits to maternity leave, as well as necessitating itemised pay-slips, among other things.

At a glance, it is difficult to comprehend why such basic, reasonable amendments should have been met with so much resistance by employers: to the extent that the ministry felt compelled to suspend their enactment ‘as a sign of good will’.

The new regulations contain aspects that are, in fact, already stipulated elsewhere in Malta’s labour laws – though not necessarily in such detail, and not necessarily extended to all categories of employee.

Moreover, they represent fair and equitable protection for some very basic workers’ rights. It would be regrettable to have to conclude that the Chamber of Commerce and the Malta Employers’ Association – both of which came out strongly against the proposals – would favour the unilateral termination of leave already granted by consent of the employer; or deduct sick- or maternity leave from annual leave, which is, in any case, already against the law. 

To be fair, the official complaint concerned a lack of consultation with the social partners. It is true that the changes seem to have been surreptitiously introduced at a time – the feast of Santa Marija – when most Maltese are on holiday. But even if justified, the complaint is only about the way the changes were introduced: on its own, it is not enough to warrant objections to the actual changes themselves.

Yet the ministry withdrew its proposals under threat of a boycott by the aforementioned social partners, who said they would not attend meetings of the Employment Relations Board in protest at the new vacation leave rules. Surely, this is a case of excessive force by the associations concerned.

Be that as it may, government’s reluctance to face the challenge head-on is symptomatic with a broader approach to labour issues in Malta as a whole. This is not the first time any Maltese government – nor even this Maltese government – has bent over backwards to accommodate employers’ complaints at the merest sign of discontent. The case is redolent of the way a minimum wage increase was finally brought into force, only after the concerted effort of a coalition of NGOs; and then only with an annual 3% increase over three years.

But the phenomenon is mostly visible in its converse form: where governments favour commercial interests directly (rather than indirectly, by limiting employee rights). In other instances, business demands are often met swiftly and decisively in favour of business, even if to the detriment to particular sectors of society.

A classic case in point would be the construction industry, where planning rules are often flexibly interpreted to accommodate developers' ventures, even if this results in a downgrade to residents’ quality of life, or damage to the environment.

In this case, however, the portents are ominous. Malta’s economic model is undergoing radical and rapid transformation. There is great demand for labour – resulting in the importation of workers from overseas – in a context where the infrastructure guaranteeing employee protection is being weakened instead of strengthened, as it should be.

Moviment Graffiti’s spokesman Andre Callus puts the matter succinctly: “Many workers in Malta are suffering from low pay and bad conditions of work. Employers have consistently vetoed any effort to improve the conditions of workers and have even opposed, successfully, a raise in Malta’s meagre minimum wage. Regulations ensuring certainty for workers with regards to their days of rest, and the provision of clear information about their pay, are the very bare minimum for safeguarding workers’ rights. The fact that employers’ associations are forcefully opposing even these very basic provisions goes to show their disregard for their workers, without whom they would not be making a cent of their profits.”

This practice is admittedly not unique to the present government; but it is more incongruous, coming from a Socialist party that claims to champion the ordinary worker. It seems, however, that Labour is more interested in accommodating employers; while any legal notices that directly benefit workers, and which would reduce the flexibility of employers to maximise labour gains, are never driven forward as a sign of ‘good will’ towards workers.

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