Speakers at the General Conference

The Times of Malta, Wednesday 8 October 2003

Individualism or solidarity—Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami

The choice facing the General Workers' Union today was between solidarity and individualism.

“Individualism might lead to higher wages for your members or for sectors of your membership but would definitely not guarantee quality and competitiveness of labour in Malta. It is solidarity that leads to better conditions of work.”

Solidarity was not achieved by subsidising unsustainable practices but by helping the unsustainable become sustainable, such as the pensions and health systems.

Solidarity was not achieved by confrontation but could be attained around the negotiating table where social partners from all sections of civil society could formulate meaningful policies.

“The fight against unemployment, the financing of social services and health services and the reform of the public sector are imposing on us the responsibility to change without casting aside the solidarity between us.”

The standard of living enjoyed by the Maltese and the social fabric were formed thanks to cooperation between the government and the social partners.

“The GWU can be a protagonist as it was in the past. Our children and grandchildren will look at us and judge us on how able we were to work together to form a just society with opportunities for everyone.

“Today's and tomorrow's society would not remember anyone for the big struggles of the past but would look at the ability to contribute to finding solutions on the issues and challenges such as creating work and being competitive; the strengthening of social benefits, pensions, health and public services as well as the environment.”

Call for regeneration—Opposition leader Alfred Sant

Malta needed “regeneration plans” that should be drawn up by all social partners.

All social partners had to contribute in the social dialogue that would lead to the formulation of such plans. “Social dialogue does not mean listening to ministers preaching.”

The Malta Labour Party continued to embrace its principles and would remain the workers' party, in spite of the disappointment of the electoral defeat.

He still believed in the partnership option but the party could not match the resources of the pro-EU campaign.

Now that people had decided on membership, the party was discussing the way forward and a decision would be taken in the party's conference in November.

One of the options was to get Malta out of the EU but he believed this was not in workers' interests as it would create too many problems on many fronts. The MLP executive did not advocate this direction.

“If, God forbid, there will be too many disadvantages because of EU membership, nothing would keep Malta from leaving the EU but this should not be the starting point.

“The biggest challenge is not to forget local issues by focusing too much on EU membership, as the government has done in the past years and in the run up to the elections.”

Although before the elections everything seemed rosy, problems were now surfacing. The deficit continued to grow, investment was lacking, environmental problems loomed, uncertainty and unemployment were growing, tourism was on the verge of a crisis and the infrastructure was weak.

“These have now become national problems because the government had only focused on EU membership, and succeeded, but forgot about the rest.”

The government should shoulder responsibility and (shipyard) workers should not become a scapegoat.

“Between 1996 and 1998 a plan was devised and things were moving slowly. But then nothing happened for three whole years, the report was forgotten and all momentum of the reforms was lost. Problems now appear to be more serious. No one should make a scapegoat of workers. These should be the best partners to make the necessary changes. Changes have to really take place, not just on paper.

”New vision—Salvu Sammut, GWU president

The General Workers' Union was prepared to lend a hand so that the country could move ahead and find its feet “in the new reality” but the burdens should not be borne by those who could least afford them.

The burdens should be evenly spread as otherwise “the union would not think twice about using legitimate means to go out and defend the interests of these citizens”.

The union had to look ahead through a new vision and must understand that what was acceptable in the past was no longer acceptable or valid in today's world.

“As a skilled tradesman changes his tools for new and more efficient machinery, so must the union. It has to change its strategies.”

Mr Sammut said Malta always had played an important role in the building of European civilisation and it was imperative that everyone put behind them their “fundamental and parochial differences and pull the same rope, as long as there are no ulterior motives”.

There was space for everyone in a democracy but now that people had decided on the EU issue, their decision should be respected. The union would remain mature in all its decisions, would be proactive and would participate without “going up alleyways that lead nowhere”.

The union was aware that because of globalisation, any ripple was bound to affect Maltese workers. But it would not be shackled by “movements of convenience that exist only to put spokes in the wheels”.

The union would remain independent and would listen and think about what was said but would finally decide on how to act. Only its members had the right to dictate and decide, after open debate.

Bold intervention needed—Karmenu Vella—secretary, services and media section

An immediate and bold intervention was needed to boost economic development and the Maltese should stop wasting time blaming each other and imagining that others would solve their problems.

“Workers are no longer interested in blaming someone but want to retain a decent standard of living.”

Were the problems being faced by Malta the result of EU membership and would such problems have been there had Malta chosen to stay out of the EU?

“The replies to these questions are known to one and all but no one has the courage and decency to answer them.”

Over the past 10 years, the country had chosen “the luxury of seeking confrontation rather than solutions”.

“We chose illusory debates on whether Malta should join or stay out of the EU, alienating people from the real problems. Politicians failed to compete between them on who could create most work and get most investment and we wasted 10 years debating pointlessly.”

The union had been ridiculed when years ago it came out with the idea that a front to create work should be formed.

Country's problems

Various section secretaries and other delegates spoke of different problems plaguing the country.

Delegate David Magri spoke about tax evasion, which was leading to a higher tax burden on honest taxpayers. He appealed for better environmental protection, which affected people's quality of life. Joe Grima , section secretary of the hospitality workers' section, spoke about the problems in tourism and other sectors and how bigger businesses were forcing smaller ones to close down.

The secretary of the ports and transport workers' section, Manwel Zammit spoke about the problems workers in his section were facing. Ramp workers at Air Malta were going to face competition from a foreign giant while Air Malta itself soon had to face much bigger airlines and cheaper air fares.

Alfred Cassar, secretary of the shipyard workers section, said it made one cry to see empty docks at the drydocks and foreign workers being exploited, taking the place of Maltese workers.

Roberto Cristiano, section secretary for manufacturing and SMEs, spoke about job losses in his sector. He said the only “investment” the government had made to attract foreign investment was demotivating staff at MDC, Metco and Ipse.

Jason Micallef appealed for unity and confidence in all union leaders. He said workers at PBS were facing the same problems as shipyard workers: delays in signing of the collective agreement, transfers and intimidation.

Gejtu Mercieca, section secretary of the chemical workers' section, said Malta was already tasting the bitterness of EU membership before even joining. Companies were shedding jobs or not giving any pay rises because they wanted to reap more profit.