Interview | Wednesday, 09 December 2009

It’s all about implementation

CMTU President William Portelli spoke to KARL STAGNO-NAVARRA on the current challenges facing trade unions in a time of economic recession. He stresses the importance of closely following a steadfast implementation of Government measures for next year’s Budget to safeguard jobs

How do you picture the current economic situation?
It is definitely not an easy one which in effect means that we should very well prepare for challenging times ahead even though I think we are somehow striving.
Malta’s economy is what it is and while one can argue that it is a very small economy, it is still challenging to design or provoke the right stimulus so as to maintain momentum and work for jobs and growth.
The tourism factor is probably mostly significant since it can generate income and jobs to quite a few services and everyone knows that when the tourist industry is strong, everything seems to buzz.
We get jobs on the increase, property market booming and SME’s make enough cash to maintain good levels of profitability which in the end is to the benefit of all.

Given the economic recession does it weaken or strengthen trade unions?
It is not a question of weakening or strengthening trade unions. The present economic recession demands good and mature levels of understanding from all social partners and Unions can do a lot of effective work by acting as “agents of change” when dealing with their own members and this sometimes is very much underestimated in Malta.
Obviously, being responsible and accountable in how you convey realistically what is required to support a business while maintaining decent conditions for the members is crux of the matter especially during such an economic recession that Malta and the rest of the world are facing.

What is the CMTU’s opinion on the current consultation process within MCESD?
The Confederation of Malta Trade Unions has repeatedly confirmed that the process has improved drastically.
One has to look at how the latest pre-budget consultation process was conducted to realistically evaluate the present economic situation and what the trends are.
Knowing this, the members around the MCESD table will be in a better position to judge, work and finally propose on how best to deal with whatever is presented to them.
The recent idea of commissioning an economist to assist in the compiling of the feedback which is given by the stakeholders is a clear example of how we should be moving forward.

Government has announced a budget for 2010 that focuses on safeguarding and creating jobs. Do you see it the same way?
Considering all current circumstances, I think that Government has made an effort to try an address the main points of contention.
While it may be easy to criticize, it is definitely much harder to identify solutions and even more so implementing them.
What I notice up to now is that Malta is suffering less than other countries where job redundancies are concerned and for me credit should be given to the government because it is not easy to maintain such momentum especially when you have such a “depressive” economic scenario that impinges directly on imports and exports, investment and our main industry such as the tourist sector.
What I always insist upon is that we are disciplined in how we conduct our business and by this I mean on how government will implement the measures and whether we are ambitious enough to cope with being more competitive and smart in how we approach politics and decisions.

The issue is now focused on the implementation of the announced measures. Which are the priorities you have identified?
Investing in education and being more innovative is a priority because they are the basis of both present and future. We have to curb public spending and be more aggressive when marketing Malta and by this I mean in every way.
We have to work smarter to guarantee efficiencies and prove to the market that we have the right qualities to do the job.
This will give us more possibility of attracting quality investment and produce more opportunity to quality and hardworking resource such as we have in Malta.
However, we must not be complacent and therefore we need to be sharp and alert and more knowledgeable on how the market is working and to best tap the right business at the right time.
This should be a result of the promised incentives that government is launching while training and education should continue to compliment Malta’s objectives. The benefits of successfully branding Malta in the end should help us survive and then prosper.

Raising the energy tariffs as from next January: Do you see this as a setback for workers?
This is one subject which I feel was mishandled by the authorities and in my opinion, the quicker we get to the end of it the better it is for all. It could be a setback not just to the worker but also to the business especially if the increase is a heavy one.
It is not an easy situation since we need to get consumer confidence at high levels to generate more business and hope that feel good factor start to reign again which at the moment is mostly in demand especially during this festive season.

What about employers/industrialists?
What goes for the worker and the family could also be for employers and industrialists since we need them to employ more people when it is viably possible even though the present economic scenario will condition them to work for retention.
It has to be understood that we need the employing business to be strong and healthy because that is the only way we can produce a win-win situation together with the conditions that go with it.

What is your opinion about the COLA increase for 2009?
Unless there was a specific agreement on other alternatives to replace COLA, I think that there was no other option but to grant the increase since it is getting tougher to cope with high rising energy costs.
For this time round at least, I also think that there was no other immediate solution except for government to address the delicate and costly issue by assisting the employers to balance any shortfall that COLA may produce.
The future may demand differently and in my opinion it is more imperative that all heads get together and start discussing other options to ensure that we are prepared to meet the challenges by putting ourselves in a position that enables us to anticipate change and what comes with it.

What effect do you think this will have on jobs in 2010?
The effect on jobs will depend on how business will perform and whether Malta’s productivity levels are sufficient even though we have yet to see whether 2010 will provide an upturn or not.
Economists are being very cautious on any prediction for the coming year but the feeling is that we may need to “pull up the socks higher” as it may be still too early for anybody to declare the world is coming out of recession which in turn may still have its effect on tiny Malta.

Have you any appeal to workers?
I will always insist that workers should start even more to acknowledge the importance of being flexible as long as the arrangement is a decent one.
Giving added value is something which we Maltese need to ensure since our economy is what it is and since we mainly rely on imports.
With quality resource and high performance levels, Malta can attract the investment that it deserves and the latest deals in the aviation industry is a perfect example of how important it is to be insist on quality to whatever we do.

Have you any appeal to employers/industrialists?
My appeal to the employers and industrialists will mainly focus on the importance of being upfront with whoever they are negotiating with and obviously here I am insisting on how beneficial it can get when engaging in a straightforward open and transparent social dialogue process.
The more we can motivate the work force the better performance one gets and if we manage to identify the ways it can be done it could prove to be crucially favorable to the business, to the worker and to the economy in general.

What are your prospects for 2010?
The predictions for the world economy in 2010 may suggest a slight ‘emergence’ from recession but we are not sure of what the post-crisis economic landscape looks like and how it has impacted on Malta’s economic environment.
Maybe in 2010 it will be clearer and that is when we can start to evaluate the real cost of the recession. As I said, we cannot afford to be complacent and we need to work smarter and be more innovative and while we should expect to slightly suffer from some negative international “whiplash”, it may not be such a big surprise if we continue to survive and keep unemployment at bay while other bigger countries continue to face high unemployment and the burden of heavy debts.
Although the business and the labour market may not still be in a position to see “drastic” improvements, 2010 will at least enable all to focus on consolidation, better jobs and strategies for future growth rather than just short-term solutions.
Malta can do this by having all partners on board with one objective – to work effectively together in the interests of our country.

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09 December 2009


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