Cyprus: Latest working life developments Q3 2018

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The agreement between the government and trade unions to enter into a substantive dialogue to resolve disputes in the education sector, the huge increase in workplace-related accidents and the waste collectors’ strike in the Municipality of Strovolos are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in Cyprus in the third quarter of 2018.

Substantive dialogue agreement reached in the education sector

The government’s announcement on 4 July to introduce a string of measures designed to streamline the operation of public schools fuelled strong reactions by the teachers’ unions, notably the Pancyprian Organisation of Greek Teachers (POED), the Organisation of Greek Secondary Education Teachers (OELMEK) and the Association of Teachers of Technical Education (OLTEK). The government’s decision is aimed at using teachers’ skills more effectively, improving teaching and pedagogical work and saving time wasted on non-teaching activities. The teachers’ unions not only rejected the measures, but strongly opposed the unilateral decision of the government which violates the established institutional dialogue. The unions demanded the withdrawal of the measures and requested an open dialogue with the government. In parallel, parents’ associations that had sought a role in the dialogue criticised teachers’ unions for excluding them from the dialogue, having previously requested their support.

On 13 July, teachers’ unions protested outside the Ministry of Education, demanding their rights and calling on the Minister to resign. A meeting between the unions and the Minister took place on 17 July, but ended in deadlock as both parties refused to compromise. The President of the Republic intervened in the dispute and took part in a long meeting with the unions’ management on 27 July. The meeting offered amendments to the initial decision of the government but the unions’ decision-making bodies rejected the proposal. Two bridging proposals were put also forward: one by the President of the Parliament and another by the Labour Committee, which were rejected by the unions and the government respectively. Furthermore, the repeated meetings of the Minister with stakeholders during August intensified the public dispute. As a result, the unions organised a mass protest on 28 August outside the Presidential Palace, demanding that the government suspend their decision. In early September, the President appointed an Inter-ministerial Committee with the goal of reaching an agreement with the unions. The long meetings of the Committee and the unions brought progress, but no agreements were reached in terms of the finer details. The unions decided to take further action, including a 48-hour strike that took place on 18 September. These measures and the reactions from society created a chaotic situation. Three more bridging proposals were put forward, one by parents’ associations and one by the centrist political party (which were rejected by unions and the government respectively), and another by the Cyprus Workers Confederation (SEK). On 25 September, the kidnapping of two 11-year-old boys from a schoolyard in Larnaca during school hours shocked the public and also reinforced the need for immediate action to resolve the disputes. Two days after the event, an agreement was reached on the SEK proposal, marking the start of a dialogue. The first issue on the agenda is health and safety in public schools.

Workplace accidents soar by 27%

On 11 September, during the meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Committee, the Department of Labour Inspections (DLI) submitted new data on workplace-related accidents. The data revealed a 27% increase in accidents at work between 2013 and 2018. [1] The food industry sector saw a surge of 41%, the largest increase among all sectors. In the meeting, the DLI representative mentioned that the Department is unable to resolve the current challenges due to understaffing. The representative of the Pancyprian Federation of Labour (PEO) attributed the increase in workplace accidents to employers, stating that they do not take the appropriate safety measures that are required by law for the protection of their employees. He argued that employers cut corners to save costs, citing the economic crisis and the deregulation of terms of employment.

Waste collectors strike for 48 hours

Waste collectors in the Municipality of Strovolos organised a 48-hour strike on 26 July in protest at the Mayor’s decision to privatise rubbish collection services in the municipality. The mayor responded to the strike by saying that the cost of rubbish and waste collection is too high and needs to be outsourced. Trade unions argued that the privatisation of the services would lead to a lower recruitment of waste collectors, lower salaries for collectors working for private companies and potential illegal employment, as many of the private companies do not provide collective agreements for their employees. One solution put forward by trade unions for lowering the cost of rubbish collection is to cluster waste collection services with neighbouring municipalities. The accumulation of rubbish from the strike forced the two parties to reach a temporal agreement on 31 July, which signalled the end of the strike and the immediate start of an intensive dialogue. The municipality suspended the award of the tender for the privatisation of the rubbish collection services until 31 October, to allow sufficient time for the dialogue to take place.

Commentary

The common denominator of all parties involved in the dispute in the education sector is the need to overhaul the functioning of the educational system and improve the quality of education. Instead of focusing on how to meet such an end, the government and the sectoral unions lost all control, with society experiencing an unprecedented dispute through the media. From one point of view, the government circumvented the established institutional dialogue processes and from the other, the unions continued to play a strategical power game even when negotiations allowed for an open dialogue on all the sector’s issues.

 

[1] Ministry of Labour, Welfare and Social Insurance, Department of Labour Inspection Cyprus, ‘ Annual report 2017’ , April 2018.

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