Industrial action in the construction sector

Since the beginning of 2012, a series of strikes have taken place in Cyprus in which workers have protested about violated labour agreements and the refusal of employers to grant wage increases. At the forefront of the country’s currently turbulent labour relations are construction sector workers, who have warned that they will step up industrial action if employers fail to enforce an agreement regulating subcontracting, or to accept government proposals for mediation.

Explosive climate in construction sector

More than 35,000 workers took part in a 24-hour strike in the construction industry on 14 February 2012. Workers stood firm in the face of pressure to call off their action from the employers’ side, and also warned that failure to meet their demands would cause further strikes.

The Pancyprian Federation of Labour (PEO) and the Cyprus Workers’ Confederation (SEK) urged the Federation of the Building Contractors Associations of Cyprus (OSEOK) to accept mediation proposed by the Ministry of Labour and Social Insurance on the renewal of a sectoral collective agreement that expired on 31 December 2010. Both unions called on OSEOK to pay cost-of-living increases for 2012. Its refusal to do so violates an agreement of 3 February 2012 (CY1202019I).

A second disputed issue is the employees’ failure to implement the memorandum of agreement on the regulation of subcontracting signed in July 2008 (CY0807039I). Unions say that many of OSEOK’s employer members have taken advantage of the chaos caused by the failure to conclude a valid collective agreement and are dismissing long-serving workers, replacing them with cheap subcontracted labour. Most are from other parts of the EU but many are workers from third countries who are often willing to accept extremely poor conditions of employment.

Both unions believe that the employers’ actions are a violation of the labour agreement. They have told OSEOK and the Ministry of Labour and Social Insurance that industrial action will be stepped up unless subcontractors are immediately removed from workplaces.

In a separate resolution to the Minister of Labour and Social Insurance, Sotiroula Charalambous, the assemblies of strikers have put forward a number of demands.

  • As principal employer, the state should insist that all contractors undertaking public works hire a number of workers registered with the Public Unemployment Service.
  • The government should award public works on the basis of factors other than the lowest bid, for instance, by taking into account contractors’ record in observing labour legislation.
  • The government should use development as a tool for reducing unemployment, using development budgets to the greatest extent possible.
  • The Mediation Service of the Ministry of Labour should take immediate action to renew the sectoral collective agreement and resolve the industry’s other outstanding problems.
  • The Ministry of Labour should work towards implementing the law on equal treatment of workers, regardless of their country of origin. This would help end the employment of EU workers under worse terms and conditions than Cypriot nationals;
  • The government should work in collaboration with the unions and OSEOK to find ways of monitoring new entrants to the construction industry, and to issue these individuals with ID cards that provide proof of a minimum level of professional qualification and language skills.
  • The government should introduce a requirement for construction industry workers to complete relevant safety and health training before beginning work, also making this compulsory for all ID card applicants.

Industrial action at individual construction companies

On 13 February 2012, a 24-hour strike was held at Iacovou Brothers Group (Constructions), the biggest construction company in Cyprus which employs about 400 workers. The strikers were protesting at unilateral changes by the company to the basic terms and conditions of employment, such as the extension of working hours and abolition of travel expenses, in violation of the enterprise-level collective labour agreement.

At Vassiliko Cement Works, a 24-hour strike was held on 7 February 2012, and workers have not ruled out the possibility that industrial action will continue. The dispute involves non-payment of agreed rises, although the management says this is due to the company’s substantially reduced turnover between 2009 and 2011 as a result of the financial crisis.

Employers’ response

The Employers and Industrialists Federation (OEB) has called the industrial action unacceptable, stressing that resolution of the problems that have accumulated in the construction sector – the sector worst hit by the financial crisis – requires the cooperation of everyone. The OEB says that the 24-hour token strike is incomprehensible and unjustifiable, and that it will exacerbate the problems of both management and workers. The OEB also criticises the industrial action at the Vassiliko Cement Works, saying that strike action against a company that for decades has been a model employer with enviable levels of wages and benefits for its employees is unfair and affects the interests of employers and employees alike. The OEB has called on the unions to help the company deal with the impact of the financial crisis.

OSEOK has asked the unions to return to discussions about renewal of the collective labour agreement, taking into account the extremely unfavourable financial situation of the sector, adding that it would make no concessions until industrial action had stopped.

Industrial action in other sectors

Workers in other sectors have also staged strikes, most in protest at employers’ refusal to honour pay rises and cost-of-living increases for January 2012. On 2 February 2012, the workers in the Lanitis Group held a 24-hour strike. However, a further decision by the workers to continue their action until 6 February 2012 was withdrawn following assurances from the company that it would pay the cost-of-living increase.

Industrial action in the public transport sector was also called off after five days of strike action between 1 and 5 February 2012, in the districts of Famagusta, Limassol, Nicosia and Paphos, and a one day strike on 1 February in the district of Larnaca.

At the last moment, a dockworkers’ strike was called off, and strike measures were withdrawn at the Pepsi Cola Company and the petroleum companies Hellenic Petroleum, Exxon Mobil and BP, again following assurances from the employers that cost-of-living increases would be paid.

Unions in the hotel industry are also warning of action in the event that collective labour agreements are not observed. The unions have said, however, that a large number of hotels that are members either of the Pancyprian Association of Hoteliers (PASYXE) or the Association of Cyprus Tourist Enterprises (ACTE) have stated that they will pay the increments and cost-of-living increases in the usual way.

Eva Soumeli, Cyprus Labour Institute (INEK/PEO)

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