Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Challenging times for GWU

Times of Malta, 26 October 2015
Where will the General Workers’ Union be heading following the stepping down of Tony Zarb from the post of general secretary?

Ever since it was founded in 1943, the General Workers’ Union had a closeideological and strategic relationship with the Labour Party. This enabled the construction of various important aspects of Malta’s welfare state and also ensured that workers had a strong voice, even more so as the union became Malta’s largestworkers’ organisation.

On the other hand, the union’s closeness to the Labour Party affected its autonomy, often rending the union as a satellite. This was especially the case during Labour administrations between 1971 and 1987 and also between 1978 and 1992, when there was a statutory fusion between the two.

During the late 1970s and 1980s, the Union supported Labour’s rough governance, wage freezes, and economic mismanagement, which ultimately created a space for Eddie Fenech Adami’s Nationalist Party and other unions to pronounce themselves as the defenders of workers’ rights.

Not everyone agrees with this analysis, however. For example, former union militant Sammy Meilaq argued in his recent autobiography that the union’s strategy during the 1980s provided the spark for agreements between the two majorparties in the dark days before the 1987 general election.

Under post-1987 Nationalist governments, the GWU became increasingly militant, only to soften up its approach once again during Labour’s 22-month rule between 1996 and 1998.

The Union’s closeness to Labour was more than obvious when both opposed Malta’s EU membership, notwithstanding the fact that experts commissioned by the union recommended otherwise.

In the post-2013 Labour government, the union once again softened up, and its erstwhile commendable campaigns against precarious employment practices largely disappeared once Joseph Muscat became Prime Minister.

There was an exception though. In what seemed to be his swansong, Tony Zarb led the union to militancy just before he stepped down – and rightly so – in defence of bus drivers’ working conditions.

Indeed, Tony Zarb should be commended for popularising discourse on precariousness, the rights of part-time workers and the rights of foreign workers within Maltese society.
Zarb’s successor Josef Bugeja has inherited some tough challenges. For example, the union has a relatively high representation in the public sector but relatively low representation in the private sector.

Private sector workers in precarious conditions might find it difficult to join a union, despite their legal right to do so. And this also includes foreign workers who are often more susceptible to exploitation and to lack of knowledge on their social and legal rights.

At the same time, however, an increasing number of workers might have a more individualised employment outlook, within smaller company settings characterised by professional human resource management and tailor-made contracts for employees. In the latter case, such workers may be less motivated to join a trade union, and if they do eventually join, there is no guarantee that they will join the GWU.

Besides, the social background of the labour force has changed too. Many workers today are generally more qualified than previous generations, and the number of both female and foreign employees is increasing.

Fellow sociologist Godfrey Baldacchino foresaw much of this some years ago, when he predicted that with an expanding services sector and with changes in employment settings, the GWU might face tough challenges regarding its membership base.

New general secretary Josef Bugeja seems to be aware of this. Indeed, in his inaugural speech he said, “we need to look at sectors that never believed in trade unions. We need to go out and convince the 50% of Maltese employees who are not members of any trade union, of the benefits to be in a union”.

If I had to give my two-cent worth of advice to the GWU, I would encourage it to be less dependent on the Labour Party, so as to be more attractive to prospective members who are not necessarily so keen on unconditional party politics. I would also encourage the union to give more importance to the diverse backgrounds and aspirations of workers. This would also mean that the union should mainstream discourse and policies which are friendlier towards gender, national, political and other identity differences.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Budget in the long-term

The Times of Malta, 19th October 2015

The Labour Government’s mid-term budget is characterised by a good number of positive measures. At the same time, however, Budget 2016 is lacking especially when it comes to measures dealing with long-term challenges.

Perhaps the most positive feature of Edward Scicluna’s budget is that it promises to maintain Malta’s relative economic stability and positive indicators simply by not introducing destabilising economic ‘shocks’.

Fiscal policy and social policy encourage investment and employability, and maintain government’s philosophy to reduce welfare dependency by making work pay.

Other positive measures in the budget can give a push to certain sectors whilst improving the environment. These include incentives for cleaner modes of transport, plans to develop communal solar panels and the doing away of cumbersome burdens regarding the sale of properties. Hopefully, the latter will result in the regeneration of dilapidated eyesores.

From a social dimension, it is positive that the government has introduced or retained various targeted social measures to assist particular social groups and categories. It is important, however, that loopholes are not exploited to deny certain people from such rights. In this regard foreign workers, both European and not, immediately come to mind. Many might not be aware of their social rights or might feel helpless in dealing with administrative procedures.

Social realities such as precariousness and low wages, are as pronounced as ever. This also includes workers who are employed on a part-time basis though they would prefer to work full-time. An increase in the minimum wage would have helped assist such persons who after all are contributing to Maltese society and to Malta’s economic growth.

In my view, the biggest shortcoming of Budget 2016 is that it gives too little importance to various long-term challenges. In this regard I am very much in agreement with Ranier Fsadni (Times of Malta, 15 October), who highlights challenges in areas such as health, higher education and transport, the latter also including Air Malta.

Besides, Budget 2016 says nothing about sustainable water management, when Malta’s extraction of groundwater from boreholes is currently a free-for-all mess. Malta’s future pension policy was also disregarded.

I hope that this is because government’s erstwhile proposed pension reform iscurrently evaluating public feedback. One should keep in mind that to date, government’s proposals are lacking when it comes to the financing of future pensions.

Local councils will remain underfunded and increasingly dependent on centralised schemes, which does not augur well for their autonomy and for their long-term financial sustainability. This is happening at the same time when partisan Tagħna Lkoll appointments in the public sector are reaching ridiculous levels.

The erstwhile positive measures in environment and transport are accompanied with other negative ones. For example, government has confirmed its insistence to develop on ODZ land in Żonqor, thus effectively sabotaging the scrutiny process within Parliament’s environment committee.

Government’s plans regarding alternative modes of transport do not seem to be accompanied by plans for adequate infrastructure, and importance given to renewable energy remains relatively low.

Government’s relatively poor performance in terms of governance does not seem to be a priority. May I remind readers that a recent comparative study on sustainable governance published by the reputable Bertelsmann Stiftung among 41 EU and OECD countries placed Malta in the lower ranks.

An example of lack of transparent governance is evident in the cash-for-citizenship scheme, which in my view raises suspicion on whether such funds are being used in a sustainable way. And this when the scheme itself is already questionable on many accounts.

The undersea tunnel announcement also provided more questions than answers. For example, is government’s decision guided by any studies?

If yes, are they available for public scrutiny, or are they State secrets, as is the case with agreements and studies concerning other areas? What are the terms of reference? Is government taking note of opinions of geologists such as Peter Gatt regarding the potential ecological dangers of such a project?

Budgets focus on one particular year, but their cumulative implications in the long-term should not play second fiddle.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Towards a greener economy

The Times of Malta, 12th October 2015

Minister for Environment Leo Brincat recently launched the final phase of the public consultation pro-cess tied to Malta’s green economy plan. Hopefully this will lead to more sustainable policymaking and not to a green PR exercise with little follow-up, which Malta has been
accustomed to under different administrations, and especially closer to elections.

A successful green economy plan should have a mix of both ambitious medium- and long-term goals as well as practical policies that can have an immediate impact in the short-term.

Renewable and efficient energy use and proper water management should be given priority, as they link to practically all sectors of the economy. This can help reduce dependency on fossil fuels whilst tackling water supply problems which can only get worse in the years to come, if current practices persist. In the shorter term, government can make better use of its property for alternative energy use, and extraction of ground water should be properly metered and controlled.

If one looks at the environmental challenges which are clearly visible in everyday life, air pollution and construction feature prominently. In both cases, threats can be turned into opportunities.

VRT testing and on-the-road enforcement should be upgraded so that Malta’s car fleet does not remain one of the oldest in Europe. Fiscal measures to encourage replacement of heavy polluters with newer cars should be enhanced. This can have positive economic effects in terms of employment, workers’ health and efficiency. Yet, an accessible, reliable and predictable public transport system is imperative to help reduce traffic gridlock, which, in itself is an economic cost.

As regards the longer-term, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat recently announced in Parliament that the government would be looking into possibilities of an underground metro or a monorail. Malta’s green economy plan should make sure that this vision is given the importance it deserves, though his other proposal for underground roads should be discarded as it can help encourage more usage of cars.

As regards development, the construction industry can shift focus to help beautify Malta, by making better use of sites which are already built up. It is positive that the developers’ association is joining the years-old call by environmentalists to have policies that encourage the use of dilapidated properties.

Just imagine if run-down areas, such as much of the seafront from Pietà onwards to Valley Road, are rehabilitated.

Government can also increase investment and incentives for better waste management. Once again, this should be beneficial to the environment and people’s health, whilst providing jobs in the process. Such investment can be financed through a better usage of the polluters-pay principle and enforcement, but it can also be considered as public investment to have a greener Malta, to the benefit of industries such as tourism.

I have noted increased efforts by the Government when it comes to cleaning up tourist areas such as Sliema and Bugibba, but surely more is to be done.

And there is no need to think of grandiose projects which are hard to implement. Instead, there are a myriad of practical solutions such as having joint collection of waste among retailers and increased usage of new technologies to pick up certain waste such as cigarette butts and animal droppings.

Government should also ensure that there is green management in each ministry, department, authority and governmental entity, including schools and local councils. A ‘green leader’ initiative had been introduced in the public service a decade ago yet it seems to have fizzled out.

The public sector is a major supplier and purchaser of goods and services, so it should have a prominent role in a green economic plan. To date, large entities such as University of Malta, Mater Dei Hospital and health centres have poor waste recycling schemes, even though thousands of people are on site every day. The introduction of such a basic practice would not only be environmentally beneficial, but it would also provide jobs in the waste management sector.

There are a myriad of other examples, including public green procurement, which can lead the way to move towards a green economy fuelled by green jobs and sustainable policies.

Consciousness on the need for a greener economy exists. It is now time to produce a sustainable vision and to have it implemented.

Post-script: This article was written before Malta's 2016 Budget Speech. Some issues referred to in the article have been referred to in the speech, though others have been ignored. I will be writing about this in my forthcoming article in The Times of Malta, next Monday.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Budget 2016 expectations

The Times of Malta 5 October 2015

Next Monday’s budget comes within a context of generally positive economic and financial trends for Malta. Nevertheless, there are challenges related to sustainability, good governance and social justice which should not be ignored.

A sustainability issue which deserves much attention relates to car traffic and pollution. Malta’s roads are increasingly gridlocked and emission controls are very poor. This has a plurality of negative impacts, such as on efficiency and people’s health. The introduction of proper enforcement measures and fiscal sanctions can help reduce the use of polluting junks on our roads. This should however be matched by concrete improvements in public transport.

Sustainability is also lacking when it comes to usage of renewable energy and as regards vacant properties.

With respect to the latter, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat recently hinted that measures can be introduced to regenerate dilapidated properties. I believe that the introduction of a good mix of fiscal incentives and disincentives can win support of both environmentalists and developers. Government can also increase expenditure on enforcement in construction sites.

Budget 2016 should also seriously tackle the lack of sustainability in Malta’s water policies. Given the free-for-all situation in the drilling for water through boreholes, ground water is likely to become more saline, meaning that Malta will likely increase dependency on costly reverse osmosis plants.

The more the government postpones this years-old problem, the more serious the problem will be for future administrations.

Sustainability is also a major concern with respect to other issues such as pensions. As I had written some weeks ago in this newspaper, it is positive that government is discussing pension reform, yet it is disappointing that an immediate debate on the possibility of second pillar pensions is being ruled out.

Another aspect relates to governance concerns the cash-for-citizenship issue. In principle I oppose this discriminatory policy, but I still expect transparency and good governance on its implementation. I hope that Minister of Finance Edward Scicluna gives a detailed overview of its financial performance so far. This would enable a proper analysis as to whether the scheme is financing sustainable needs rather than political patronage.

Good governance can also be enhanced if Budget 2016 increases funds for local councils, most of which have pressing needs, such as maintenance of roads and pavements, which is terribly underfunded. Yet, in the longer term, Malta requires a discission on whether local councils should be given more fiscal powers to finance ever-growing needs. Malta is currently in a situation where government devolves responsibilities to councils without increasing their fiscal rights.

Finally, Budget 2016 should give due importance to social justice. Malta is performing positively in relation to economic growth, stability and unemployment rates, yet there are various pressing challenges especially concerning low-income earners.

Precarious employment seems to have disappeared from government’s discourse, yet it is still very much in place. Is MCESD discussing the issue?

Government has also ruled out an increase in the minimum wage, but is it taking account of the very low wages of workers including those who have notably high responsibilities? This includes, for example, those in the caring professions such as child carers, carers of the elderly and LSAs. Wage inadequacy is even more pronounced when workers are employed on a part-time basis against their wishes.

In previous budgets, the Labour government introduced commendable welfare-to-work schemes which encourage persons to enter employment without immediately losing their benefits. Economic and sociological analyses would be able to shed light on whether their implementation is effective.

With respect to government’s welfare philosophy that people in employment should be rewarded for their efforts, one has to keep in mind that there are many persons who cannot work for various reasons. This may include age, mental health, certain disabilities and caring responsibilities. Such persons should not be excluded from measures such as free childcare and should be entitled to benefits that guarantee a decent quality of life rather than hardship.