One strike called off, but industrial discontent looms across the board

By Elias Hazou, Cyprus Mail, June 2004

METAL workers yesterday called off an imminent strike, following a last-minute mediation effort by the Labour Ministry.

The strike, set to start today, would have been indefinite and might have set the stage for more drastic action across other industrial sectors as workers and their employers wrangled over wage increases and social security contributions.

Yesterday’s meeting between the Labour Ministry’s mediating service and delegates representing employers and trade unions apparently resulted in a truce, as union delegates agreed “on principle” with the proposals and agreed to cancel their industrial action.

However, as senior union delegate Panagiotis Frangou told the Cyprus Mail, OVIEK-SEK (the industrial workers’ union) would this week be organising local meetings to try and persuade members to accept the deal.

“The proposals put forward by the ministry’s mediating service were overall satisfactory, although we can’t say we got everything we wanted,” added Frangou.

“It was exactly that, a compromise for everyone,” he offered.

Metal workers had threatened strike action when OEV (the employers and industrialists federation) refused to increase weekly wages by 1.60; their counteroffer was 90 cents. Other points of contention included setting a minimum starting salary, and employers’ contributions to the social insurance and health fund.

Some 5,000 people are currently employed in the metallurgical industry. Frangou did not wish yesterday to elaborate on which of the workers’ demands were met, in anticipation of union meetings to discuss the issue further.

But the Labour Ministry may yet have its work cut out reconciling workers and employers, as the prospect of further industrial unrest still looms. Civil servants, in particular, are up in arms following the government’s proposal to freeze wage increases until the year 2007, in a bid to curb the fiscal deficit. PASYDY, the civil servants’ union, also objects to the proposed increasing of retirement age for civil servants from 60 to 63. Moreover, the government’s austerity plan would have civil servants lose the right to claim unemployment benefits after retirement.

Other problem sectors include newspaper printers, electricians and technicians employed by car importers, although none have actually threatened to go on strike. The Labour Ministry has scheduled a mediating meeting for July 2.

And yesterday PASYXE (hoteliers’ association) director-general Zacharias Ioannides played down reports suggesting the hotel industry would be disrupted, saying he was “optimistic” about the outcome of negotiations between the involved parties.

This time round, the customary friction between employers and employees is a combination of two factors: the announcement of the government’s package of austerity measures, and the annual renegotiation of collective agreements. In Cyprus, collective agreements on employment terms and conditions are more of a gentlemen’s contract and are not binding by law. This is why they are said to be “renewed” every year, usually reproducing the trench warfare between employers and employees, as each side tries to gain an inch over the last agreement

But with the island’s entry into the European Union, more and more quarters are calling for a legal framework regulating industrial relations, in line with practices in all EU-member countries. Trade unions accuse the government of not thinking ahead, arguing that these matters should have been arranged well before EU accession.

An example of the problems caused by this lack of legislation was highlighted recently, when a number of EU nationals complained to their embassy on the island that they had been cheated or otherwise treated unfairly by their Cypriot employers. The complaint was forwarded to the Labour Ministry, which then issued a letter warning it would even revoke licences to hire foreign workers for employers behaving in this way.