By George Psyllides
ORGANISATIONS involved in commercial activities cannot continue to operate as an extension of the state, Finance Minister Harris Georgiades said on Monday, as parliament started discussing privatisation legislation that is opposed by unions.
The minister said labour and pension rights were not affected by the bill, which prompted workers in the state telecoms company CyTA, the electricity authority EAC, and the ports authority to go on strike last Friday.
CyTA staff also held a three-hour strike on Monday with hundreds assembling outside parliament while the bill was being discussed.
Speaking before the House finance committee, Georgiades said organisations engaged in commercial and entrepreneurial activity, especially in the telecoms and energy sectors, could not continue as extensions of the state.
“They cannot operate under the veil of partisanship or rampant unionism,” he said.
Approval of the bill by parliament is necessary for the release of the next bailout tranche of some €236 million.
Privatisations are part of the terms in the island’s bailout agreement. Cyprus must raise €1.4 billion through privatisations of semi-government organisations between 2016 and 2018.
Failure to raise the cash could mean a fresh memorandum.
“If we do not succeed in raising the necessary amount by 2016, Cyprus would have a funding gap and it would make our return to the markets unimaginably difficult and raise the issue of a new (bailout) memorandum with whatever this entails,” Georgiades said.
The minister assured deputies that the bill did not take away the parliament’s powers, also a key concern of the workers, though he stressed that lawmakers did not have the authority to ratify the final deal.
“To reach that stage of the sale of shares there must be a series of steps before, which involve amendments to the laws,” Georgiades said.
He added that the bill had been prepared in consultation with international lenders and if parliament made any major amendments the process would have to be repeated.
The minister asked that the bill be approved by March 5, five days ahead of the Eurogroup meeting to discuss the release of the next tranche of aid to Cyprus.
Union objections range from a demand to secure pensions and employment rights to outright rejection of privatisations.
EAC unions oppose privatisation of the organisation due to the particularities of the Cypriot market.
“There is no longer any doubt that we are talking about a fire sale,” union repAndreas Panorkos said.
Finance Committee chairman Nicolas Papadopoulos said discussion will continue on Wednesday and possibly next Monday.
Papadopoulos, also leader of coalition partners DIKO, reiterated his party’s concerns over the privatisations.
His party’s vote would be necessary for the bill to go through.
Among others, DIKO is “concerned about the possibility of Cypriot taxpayers losing huge amounts of money through a fire sale of state property, which will be given at a significantly reduced value than under normal circumstances,” Papadopoulos said.