Bus drivers in Paphos and Limassol may have called off their strikes after the government transferred money for November and December wages to their respective companies, but it does not look like the ongoing dispute over payments will be resolved any time soon. In fact, the dispute has been going on for years, with the Anastasiades government arguing that the deal signed by its predecessors was over-generous and trying to have it modified.
The dispute was taken to arbitration, which decided that the overpayment amounted to €25 million that the transport ministry said it would cut from the payments being made to the bus companies until it recovered the full amount. The companies insisted they could not afford to repay this amount and when the government withheld payment at the end of November resorted to the tactic they often use – not paying the wages of the bus drivers, who inevitably go on strike.
This tactic has been used several times in the past and every time the government has backed down, not wanting to be blamed for bus drivers being left unpaid. There is no doubt the bus companies are using their drivers to force the government to back down every time money is not paid. Opposition politicians immediately declare that it is unacceptable to leave bus drivers unpaid, especially in the month they were expecting their 13th salary and government dutifully transfers the funds, as if it is the employer. The whole situation has become a farce.
Of course, government is not without blame for this situation. The authorities had not looked at the accounts of the bus companies for the first five (some say six) years of their operation. As one of the company bosses pointed out there was no way for them to know what the transport ministry demanded when the accounts were not examined for five years. He was right in this respect. It is bizarre for the state to claim after all these years that it had paid the companies €25 million more than it should have done.
What it should be asking is why it made these overpayments? Who authorised them? If the bus companies had put in higher payment claims than were justified why had the transport ministry authorised the payments? Were payments being made for all these years without any government official checking they were correct? And why did the amount have to reach €25 million before the government came to the conclusion it was overpaying the companies? Why had it not stopped the overpayments when these totalled €10 million for instance?
Everyone is blaming the bus companies for the current dispute, but the truth is that the biggest share of the blame belongs to the slapdash way in which the transport ministry was managing the taxpayer’s money – money it will never recover because as it tries to do so the bus drivers will not be paid and go on strike.