Sunday, 10 August 2008

It Hurts

8th August 2008

The Malta Independent on Sunday

Is it the summer heat or has everyone gone crazy? How dare the government squander taxpayers’ money, offering shipyards employees yet another early retiring scheme possibly costing the nation some e49 million after having already thrown down the drain some e1 billion, equivalent to one third of the national debt, in useless restructurings that led nowhere?

And how can the GWU advise shipyards’ employees to refuse this bonanza once the government has gone crazy with our money? How can workers be expected to altruistically refuse to be paid for doing nothing while still having the possibility to be re-employed at the shipyards when they are privatised?

I am against early retirement schemes, period. And I am not alone. The EU we all love so much now is against early retirement schemes too. Such schemes pay people for doing nothing and add strain to our social security systems at a time when we are extending the retirement age to keep them from going bankrupt.

We should not pay any able-bodied person for doing nothing. If we have money to spare, we should invest it in retraining schemes to re-skill employees for alternative productive employment as quickly as possible.

Such schemes should be available to all workers who suffer redundancy. The practice whereby employees in the public sector continue to be privileged with voluntary schemes to accept redundancy while private sector employees remain totally unprotected, should be unacceptable to anyone with a social conscience. Unions should be insisting on more equity in the labour market rather than asking for privileged job guarantees the non-privileged can never have. Don’t we all pay our taxes, or are some more equal than others?

The suggestion that employees should be offered an alternative to move to some other public sector job is offensive to taxpayers. If we do that, we may just as well keep the shipyards open and continue subsidising them, which thankfully we cannot do because the EU rules will be invoked to save us from ourselves.

Arguments whether early retirement schemes should be offered before or after privatisation are irrelevant. They should not be offered at all.

Once there seems to be consensus that the only alternative to closure is privatisation, it means that the shipyards’ employees will all become redundant very soon once no major works contract are being entered into until privatisation is concluded. Redundant employees should be re-trained and re-skilled until they find alternative employment. The government, as their indirect ex-employer, should pay for such retraining (which could be funded through special access to EU programmes) and keep them on full salary for the training period (say one year).

The privatisation process should in the meantime proceed in full swing and, to ensure that the nation obtains the best value from it, no obligation should be imposed on the bidder regarding employment obligations. Obviously, the employment aspect will be an important criterion, among others, in evaluating and adjudicating the bidding process. But no employer should be made to keep employees it does not need on its books, as otherwise this will be discounted in the bidding price. If this happens it means that, essentially, the bill for such excess labour would still be on the taxpayer.

In the private sector there are no job guarantees. If we work hard and do well we have a job; if we don’t we get the brown envelope and Bob’s your uncle. Occasionally it gets worse. Private sector employees get the brown envelope even if they work hard and conscientiously. Technological innovation, threats of globalisation and normal life cycle processes make even the best among us redundant.

If employees in the private sector organisation hit by redundancies are unionised, their union will try to negotiate a severance package that goes beyond the tokens provided by law. But if the employer happens to run into financial problems, then not even the legally due redundancy tokens remain assured.

Have you heard any union making claims for voluntary redundancy and job guarantees for such private sector employees? Clearly, the unions have pretty few levers to pull in the private sector and somehow only flex their muscles where the government is involved as a direct or indirect employer. No wonder everyone prefers a government job!

Have you heard any union suggest to the government that before considering adding on industrial relations the burdens of second pillar pensions, the government should bring equity in the labour markets by making it obligatory for all employers to contribute to a redundancy fund, which would keep the salary of redundant employee intact while attending State/EU funded training programmes?

The government has become too cavalier with our money. The argument that early retirement schemes will be funded from the privatisation proceeds, has been used as if it doe not matter if privatisation proceeds are squandered. Privatisation proceeds will be a mere trickle of the one billion euro we have poured down the shipyards these last 20 years. Most of these funds are accumulated in our national debt on which we have been paying hefty interest bills each year. Any privatisation proceeds we get should be used to reduce the national debt. They should not be frittered away on some crazy early retirement schemes where we pay people to go away of their own accord and then come back and do the same work for a new owner, probably earning more than before if the outfit is managed as efficiently as private organisations usually are.

And once at it, how can the government keep mum on claims being made by the unions that management have caused the shipyards to incur huge losses on some contracts, which were improperly negotiated, wrongly costed and badly executed? Awesome figures of tens of millions of euros have been mentioned. This is the taxpayers’ money. The shipyards are no ordinary commercial organisation. If someone fouled up then the taxpayer has to be given due account. Not that the shipyards’ fate could have been avoided without such foul-ups. But at least we would have lost a few millions less. A proper explanation, confirmation or denial is needed and if the government has no answers then it should get them by setting up an independent investigation. This in no way should be allowed to delay or interfere with the privatisation process. Both can run in parallel.

Time is tight and the margin for error is zero. The taxpayer should not be made to suffer more. It hurts!



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