Public service union Pasydy’s demand that its members be exempt from contributing to the national health system (Gesy) sparked fierce reactions on Thursday from the government, opposition parties, the private sector and the House health committee.
All were responding to remarks by Pasydy boss Glafcos Hadjipetrou to local daily Phileleftheros, in which he argued that the terms of employment of civil servants clearly stipulate that the state must guarantee them free healthcare at state hospitals.
The Cyprus Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Keve) said that this, on top of the lucrative pay deal secured by nurses and the new push by doctors for higher wages even before Pasydy’s demand for free healthcare for some 65,000 civil servants would lead to the collapse of attempts to introduce a health-care system.
“It’s time for Pasydy to stop this mentality where it believes that workers in the public sector are of a higher order than employees in the private sector,” the Chambers said. “It is unthinkable to expect private sector workers to pay the cost of public servants’ health care through the imposition of new taxes when workers in the private sector earn on average much lower wages.”
Keve threatened to withdraw from the dialogue on Gesy and would not consent to its implementation if it was not made clear that employees in the public sector would pay their own contributions “just as it applies to workers in the private sector”.
“We expect the government and the parties to demonstrate the political courage and not take this demand into considerations. All workers should be treated equally so we can start to put an end to the widening of the gap between the public and private sectors.”
Hadjipetrou in his comments to Phileleftheros published earlier said: “What we are saying is that based on the terms of employment, the employer, that is the state, is obliged to ensure free healthcare for its employees.”
However, the union boss added that, because the union fully supports the introduction of Gesy, it will not object to the bills being passed with the provision that civil servants are obliged to contribute equally with other employees, though it will challenge it in court afterwards.
According to the original Gesy planning, the health scheme will be jointly funded by the government and universal wage-based percentage contributions by both employees and employers.
Government bills submitted to parliament for voting allow for various combinations of contributions by employers and employees, but not for distinctions within either group.
That is to say that, per the government’s proposals, it may be decided that employers or employees as a group will shoulder different percentage contributions relative to each other, but the contribution of any subset within each group may not be differentiated from that of the rest.
The union had also gone to court in 2013 when a 1.5 per cent contribution was introduced as part of the government’s austerity drive. The case is still pending.
According to Hadjipetrou, it had also opposed contributions in 2001, but, because the issue was not further pursued, discussion of Pasydy’s objections was also suspended.
“Pasydy is not demanding that no contributions are made by civil servants into the Gesy fund, but that, based on the terms of employment [of civil servants], the employer, that is the state, should be paying these contributions on its employees’ behalf,” Hadjipetrou said.
The union’s stance prompted the reaction of Health minister Giorgos Pamboridis, who called on everyone to “rise to the occasion”.
“We are in the final stages of a great achievement, and such new approaches would jeopardise the entire effort,” he said.
Pamboridis’ rererence to a “new” approach suggested that Pasydy had not raised this issue when other elements of the scheme were being discussed – including pay rises for nurses and doctors – but Hadjipetrou insisted that free healthcare for civil servants is part of their terms of employment.
“As Pasydy, we have no right to waive this basic individual right,” he told state radio.
“We have no intention of obstructing the legislative process, but saying ‘yes, we accept that you can impose a contribution on us’ is very different.”
In a statement, socialist Edek said any hope for Gesy’s success requires “universal coverage, universal contribution, and solidarity”.
“Civil servants, especially the highly-paid among them, cannot be exempt from contributing and placing the burden on the taxpayer,” the party said.
“Everyone must contribute in proportion to their wages, so that citizens from the weaker and vulnerable groups can receive treatment of equal quality.”
The Solidarity movement was equally critical, arguing Pasydy’s demand was “not unionising, but guildship”.
“Civil servants’ contribution to the economy has been important traditionally,” party spokesman Yiannis Selinopoulos said.
“But in a fair state there can be no privileged classes of employees. We must all contribute in proportion to our wages, and we must all pay our fair share in our obligations to the state.”
Colonial holdovers must be eradicated, Selinopoulos said.
Although Pasydy had earlier admitted that their legal challenge to any contribution provision had been a foregone conclusion since 2001, the Greens blamed the government for adopting a “hand-out” policy.
“The campaign tactic of ‘hand-outs’ employed by President Anastasiades has emboldened certain groups to ask for more and more, scuppering the original Gesy planning,” party VP Efi Xanthou said.
“It seems we will be discussing Gesy for a long time to come.”
The House health committee also joined ranks with the government and parties, with chairman Costas Constantinou arguing that the “elements of universal coverage and choice are part of Gesy”.
“All Cypriot citizens will participate in this universal coverage, and their rights come with obligations,” Constantinou said.
“And because there has been talk of the contracts under which hirings are made, the Constitution stands supreme, laws follow, and then come contracts. Therefore, the bills currently with the House, which will be followed, will supersede any past contracts.”