[WATCH] Employees cannot refuse to work if outlets have re-opened, minister says

Carmelo Abela warns employers and workers not to take law in their hands during COVID-19 crisis, says pandemic has highlighted language gaps in official communication

Minister Carmelo Abela
Minister Carmelo Abela

With restrictions on certain commercial outlets lifted, Monday has brought a new set of complaints from employees unwilling to go to work.

But Carmelo Abela warned that these employees would be breaching their work obligations unless they have a valid reason at law, such as staying home to take care of a child.

The Minister within the Office of the Prime Minister said government would not be tolerating abuse, whether this is carried out by employers or employees.

“If employers have re-opened their business because restrictions have been lifted and all safety precautions are being taken as advised by the public health authorities, employees cannot take the law into their hands and refuse to work,” Abela said in a Facebook interview with MaltaToday.

He said the Department of Industrial and Employment Relations (DIER) received some complaints on Monday regarding workers who failed to report for work.  

But Abela was adamant that government will not accept abuse from employers either, acknowledging that DIER had to strengthen its inspectorate arm to carry out more workplace inspections.

Workers’ employment conditions have come under the spotlight as the COVID-19 pandemic brought the economy to a virtual standstill.

Last month the government and the social partners agreed on the payment of a wage benefit of €800 per employee per month by the government and a voluntary top up of €400 by employers, for businesses that were forced to close.

However, not all employers have granted the top up, leaving workers to question why this was not mandated at law.

Abela said the government felt that the social pact reached between unions, employers and government was strong enough to ensure that the top up is paid. Employers need the DIER’s approval not to give the top up and they have to provide justification for this.

“I urge employers to stick to their part of the deal but there are very valid reasons which do not permit workplaces to give the top up and enshrining this at law would have complicated matters,” Abela said.

Asked about foreign workers, a most vulnerable category, Abela acknowledged the pandemic highlighted language gaps in official communication.

He said there was a learning curve from the start of the pandemic when government’s communication was mainly in Maltese.

“Inclusion means that we understand each other and what is happening around us and to do so we also have to speak in a language others understand… we need to break down language barriers but we gradually changed since the start of the pandemic by including English parts in press conferences organised by the health authorities and the Prime Minister,” Abela said.

Asked whether government’s agenda on worker rights, including pay transparency and mandatory union membership, will be shoved aside as a result of COVID-19, Abela said it was government’s intention to continue or start these discussions with the social partners.

He added that the intention was not to burden employers with new costs but in the context of an economy that will start to grow again, government wanted to ensure worker conditions are improved.