IT IS quite sickening to hear the self-righteous leaders of the Cyta unions insist they were defending workers’ rights by opposing the authority’s privatisation. “We believe that our rights are only safeguarded by maintaining Cyta as a public organisation,” said one union boss during last Monday’s demonstration outside the presidential palace that was held while the cabinet was approving the bills guaranteeing work for life and the same pay and pension terms to the Authority’s pampered workers.
But is it workers’ rights that are threatened by privatisation or privileges? In Cyprus, public sector unions have always promoted the myth that these are one and the same thing, ignoring the fundamental difference – the universality of rights. In democracies, rights are guaranteed by the constitution and the law to all citizens and so are the basic workers’ rights such as maximum working hours per day, minimum number of annual holidays, maternity leave, etc. What the unions of semi-governmental organisations have won for their members – big annual pay rises for everyone, subsidised holidays, very high pensions without a worker contribution – are not rights, as they are not universally enjoyed, but privileges secured with the complicity of the political parties.
Take for instance, the guaranteed pensions for SGO workers. The state is obliged to cover any losses incurred from the investments of the pension fund. This is a privilege as there is no such guarantee for pension funds of private companies. In fact when money of private company pension funds was lost in the haircut of deposits in 2013, workers, who did not enjoy the ‘rights’ of Cyta employees, had to accept less. Yet, the €240m losses suffered by Cyta’s pension fund in 2013-14 will be covered in full by the taxpayer so that the fat pensions and retirement pay-offs of its workers are not reduced. Is this right or a privilege enjoyed by a select few?
The bills approved by the Council of Ministers on Monday, which workers were protesting against, were also based on the ‘privileges’ rationale. Cyta workers would have a choice when the organisation is privatised, to stay on or move to the state sector, where they will be offered permanent jobs on the same pay and benefits. When a private company is sold are its workers given such choices by the state, if they do not want to work for the new owner?
What the government has offered is scandalous, another confirmation that in Cyprus we have first-class and second-class workers, the former guaranteed privileges the latter could not even dream of. And as if this was not bad enough, President Anastasiades after meeting Cyta union has agreed to improve the terms being offered to the employees ahead of privatisation.