Weak legislation when it comes to private sports facilities allows hundreds of gym owners to flout the law and openly operate without the necessary licences.
It has long been an open secret in Cyprus that hundreds of gyms across the country are operating illegally, are found out, dragged to court, slapped with a small fine and then continue to go about their business.
The issue was brought into the spotlight recently when the auditor general, in his report for the Cyprus Sports Organisation (KOA) for the year 2017 published in June, outlined that out of 822 gyms which were operating, only 77 had valid licences.
The fact that not even 10 per cent of all gyms operate legally does not surprise the head of the Cyprus gym association, Michalis Shekkeris.
“New ones spring up every day, even in people’s basements. The law simply doesn’t deter them.”
A closer examination of the auditor general’s report does outline there are a number of gyms which had applied for a licence but were still awaiting the final stamp of approval.
For instance, 50 gyms were approved for a licence but then they never applied, two had been approved and they had to pay the fees while seven were approved and were still being evaluated for a licence.
A further 61 applications were under scrutiny for the period which the report examined.
Nonetheless, Shekkeris stipulates that the penalties for someone violating the law are simply not enough to deter them from operating illegally.
The law at the moment allows for a fine up to €854, and/or six months in jail. Provisions for a judge to rule the gym needs to shut down exist, but are rarely implemented according to KOA’s director general Mary Charalambous Papamiltiades.
As outlined in the auditor general’s report, out of the 194 cases that went to court by March this year, 11 of those resulted in gyms shutting down. Another 73 are still being heard while for 18, the owners are set to be called to go to court.
A total of 131 cases were withdrawn and out of those, 45 were because the owners obtained the necessary licence.
“When the case goes to court, it is out of our hands,” Papamiltiades told the Sunday Mail. The case is in the hands of the law, which most often rules in favour of a fine.
Shekkeris, who runs his own gym puts it bluntly “why should I pay when the others don’t?”
Though he has a licence, adhering to the provisions is costly, he said.
Only recently, the Electricity Authority changed some of their regulations which stated that the brown electrical wires in his gym needed to be changed to yellow. This alone cost him €7,500. A gym which doesn’t have a licence doesn’t need to be concerned with any of these costs and can afford to charge less, thus attracting more customers.
“Look at it this way. Someone wants to join a gym, they ask around for prices, one charges €65 and the other €50,” Shekkeris said.
“The latter doesn’t have a licence, so doesn’t even pay VAT.”
The first one has to cough up 19 per cent tax bringing the revenue from one client to €56.
According to Papamiltiades, many members of the public are probably unaware that several of the gyms they see are operating illegally. On KOA’s website, an up-to-date list of the legally operating gyms is available.
Christina Nicolaou, who joined a gym a few months ago, said she had been clueless about this. “I only found out because my cousin, who is a trainer at a gym, posted on Facebook a screenshot of the gyms with a licence and I saw how few there were.”
Seeing that they were legal helped her quickly decide that was the gym she was going to sign up for. “I’ve never been to a gym before, I’m clueless about everything, I don’t want anything to do anything wrong.”
Anna Timotheous recalled that a gym where she paid €45 a month did seem too good to be true.
“The place seemed a bit weird. The gym was fine and functioning but I had no idea there had to be emergency exits noted. I’m pretty sure they also didn’t have proper certification for their equipment – there was a couple of machines that were a little dysfunctional,” she said.
“I didn’t renew my membership because I had other stuff going on but I don’t know. I mean I liked that I could save €20 so it’s a bit of a dilemma.”
According to Papamiltiades, changing the legislation to introduce far more stringent fines was one of her top priorities when she took over the helm of KOA three months ago.
At the moment, discussions are ongoing and there is a draft bill which has been prepared, set to go to parliament this September, with the aim of having it voted into law.
“The aim is to introduce fines which will deter people from violating the law.”
Getting a licence from KOA only costs €200 per year, she outlined and covers three main rules – that the premises have the necessary building permits, that safety and security regulations are adhered to (such as emergency exit signs) and that fitness instructors have the proper qualifications.
According to Shekkeris, it is not the €200 that’s the problem but all the expenses behind it. For instance, he outlined, adhering to the safety regulations like the example with the wires, costs thousands.
Additionally, government bureaucracy is no joke – getting a building permit may take over a year, he said.
“Is the gym owner supposed to sit there with his hands crossed?”
It is also important to remember, Papamiltiades noted, that gyms with no licence also mean that it is highly likely the fitness instructors don’t have the necessary qualifications to carry out their job.
“For their own good, members of the public should always check and see if the gym has a licence.”
As part of the legal overhaul, KOA will also examine broadening the scope of qualifications fitness instructors are required to have as gym owners feel it is quite limiting.
Only people who have studied physical education at a university level can currently legally work at a gym, however, Shekkeris maintains that there are several schools which teach sports and fitness which should also be included as suitable criteria.
Papamiltiades stipulated this is also one of the matters currently being examined, as is the possibility of extending the licence to be valid for three years as opposed to currently being valid for a year.
Although the auditor general noted that KOA had increased the number of inspections, up 477 compared to 429 in 2016, the problem lay in the weak law.
“It is implemented but it’s not tough enough,” Papamiltiades said.
“In my opinion, we should also publish the names of those operating without a licence. Name and shame.”