THE overtime ban by the port workers that caused big losses to the economy and was lifted yesterday, is a reminder of the absurd way things operate in the public sector. When the ban was in place, Limassol port would shut down at 1.30pm and ships would not be allowed to leave. If it was Friday lunch-time, a ship would have to wait until Monday morning, when the port workers returned to work, in order to leave Limassol. Inevitably, ships had been avoiding using Limassol port and will carry on doing so.
What is astonishing is that ports authority staff work office hours, and anything they do in the afternoon or in the evening is paid as overtime. In the past, overtime work was paid double the daily rate and triple on Sundays, but the rates have been drastically cut by the government this year – in line with the rest of the public sector. The unions imposed the overtime ban in protest against the cuts. They called off the measure just before last weekend in the hope that talks with the government would reduce the cuts. Yesterday, the ban was in place again only to be lifted in the afternoon when both sides agreed to start month-long talks next week.
Only in a country like Cyprus that is run by unions could there have been such a stupid arrangement with regard to overtime in services that should work round the clock, like hospitals, the police force and the fire brigade. Instead, staff in these services work public sector office hours – until 2.30pm – and any work after that is paid overtime.
This is why the government has an extortionate bill to pay every year for public sector overtime. The finance minister reduced the overtime rates for everyone in this year’s budget and was faced by a storm of protests by nurses, doctors, policemen and port workers. Of course, the rational thing to do was to have introduced a shift system at all these places and paid overtime only for work done on public holidays and Sundays. A small allowance could be given as compensation to workers who did shifts at unsociable hours, but nothing more.
The existing system also encourages workers to be inefficient and unproductive during office hours so they would have to complete their work on overtime pay. Customs officials, for instance, refuse to inspect containers in the morning because in the afternoons they are paid overtime – cash up front – by the person or business hiring them. Nobody was bothered that the unnecessary extra cost of overtime for custom officials and port workers was passed on to the consumer.
The cuts in overtime are not a solution. The only sensible solution is for the government to introduce a shift system at all these organisations. It would cut costs for the state and for businesses in one go and for good. What a shame the Troika did not make the introduction of the shift system a provision of the MoU. If the port workers were going to harm the economy anyway, it may as well have been over the shift system than over the rate of overtime pay.