Every day is like Sunday

MaltaToday's editorial: With Malta’s economy transforming at a fast pace, there is now a very real danger that a shared understanding of what is decent and normal may be eroded for the profit of the few. This must not be allowed to happen.

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

Ahead of Budget 2018, the General Workers’ Union once again called on the government to allow employees working on Sundays and public holidays to be paid double and triple their hourly rate respectively.

It is a demand the union first made in 2012, following the government’s decision to stop adding public holidays that fall on a weekend to an employee’s annual leave. Even earlier, when a decision was taken to allow shops to open on Sundays, the GWU had stuck to its guns by insisting that Sunday – though now a workday – remains intrinsically different from other days of the week. This cultural difference, it argued, should be reflected in the conditions of employees working on a Sunday... something which, all these years later, has never properly materialised.

Naturally, both the Malta Employers’ Association and the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association hold different views on the matter. In the former’s opinion, the removal of public holidays was a long overdue decision, which in any case did not go far enough in addressing Malta’s struggling competitiveness in a globalised market. The latter has countered the GWU’s proposal by arguing that – within the catering section – ‘Sundays’ are and have always been standard working days just like any other.

Clearly, this is not a simple case of one party being right while the other is wrong. The GWU clearly has a point when insisting that Sundays and public holidays occupy a privileged niche in the traditional mindset of the Maltese working population. The psychology of the weekend has been with us for at least a century, and previous restrictions were only loosened in response to businesses demanding a more competitive landscape.

Besides: as a workers’ union, the GWU is manifestly within its rights to demand that the rights achieved by employees in the past are retained.

At the same time, however, the Maltese employment landscape is by its nature idiosyncratic. Today it is customary to see various types of shops, especially retail or catering, open on Sundays. But back in the 1990s, a national debate over Sunday opening hours had ensued when the developers of the Bay Street shopping complex demanded they be allowed to open shop on Sunday.

Among the fiercest opponents to this proposal was the Small Business Chamber (GRTU), which adopted the perspective of SMEs (which still make up the backbone of Malta’s economy). Retailers that are usually run by one person – the owner – shuddered at the prospect of being forced, by the competition that would ensue, to open on Sundays just to retain a share of the market.

This also implies that the employers’ perspective is itself divided: smaller businesses are naturally wary of situations that can be better exploited by their much larger rivals. Just as the GWU positions itself as the defender of the worker – the smallest cog in the machine – it is understandable that small businesses would likewise feel threatened by any improvement to workers’ rights that comes at a cost to their bottom line.

It is also perfectly understandable that employers, as evidenced by the MHRA’s reaction, will now balk at the prospect of paying higher salaries. Given the size and vulnerability of many businesses in this sector, these are not concerns that can easily be minimised or dismissed.

But there is another side to that argument. In times of economic prosperity, employers must also expect to face such demands for improved working conditions. We are passing through a period of heightened consumerism, fuelled by a growing population; and in this environment, Sundays also emerge as days of increased consumer activity. Surely, such profits cannot be simply earned on the back of weak labour rights, or the artificial perception that long-recognised ‘family days’ – which Sundays are – become ‘just another day of work’.

This is unfortunately only an extension of the erosion of workers’ rights that manifests itself in the rhetoric of employers capitalising on Malta’s record consumption levels. A case in point was the MEA’s recent suggestion that the first day of sick leave should be left unpaid.

So far, however, this debate between employee rights and employers’ concerns has only manifested itself in public spats between the unions and associations concerned. The government has to date waded only as far as it dared into discussion. It rejected the MEA’s sick leave proposal, for instance, but Muscat’s administration has stopped short of coming up with a coherent policy giving direction to Malta’s economic development.

This is not good enough. The government has to reckon with this kind of discourse, and also apprise itself of the actual situation on the ground. Its acquiescence to a raise in the minimum wage was too little, too late... considering that the rise in average national incomes has outpaced the increase in the minimum wage over the last 10 years. Despite these sporadic gains, there is no doubt that business interests heavily outweigh other considerations behind the government’s actions.

With Malta’s economy transforming at a fast pace, there is now a very real danger that a shared understanding of what is decent and normal may be eroded for the profit of the few. This must not be allowed to happen.