Construction unions step up industrial action

In November 2012, nine months after the first strikes in the construction sector in Cyprus over the government’s austerity measures, workers decided to launch fresh industrial action. They are protesting at the non-renewal of their collective labour agreement, the violation of basic terms of the agreement for a large proportion of workers, and the uncontrolled entry of cheap labour into the industry.

Industrial strife in construction

Proposals for renewed industrial action in Cyprus’s building sector has had widespread support from construction workers. According to estimates by the Pancyprian Federation of Labour (PEO) and the Cyprus Workers’ Confederation (SEK), there was almost 100% support from construction workers for the 48-hour strike called on 22 and 23 November 2012. The unions say nearly 40,000 workers took part, a much higher rate of participation than in the 24-hour strike held in February 2012 (CY1202039I). The February strike was called in protest at the government’s austerity measures.

Changes to collective agreements, and the uncontrolled entry of cheap labour into the industry, are behind the recent 48-hour strike. Its success was attributed largely to widespread support from both domestic and foreign workers. From the outset, such solidarity was considered a necessary condition for a successful protest since the unions have emphasised that their most basic demand is the application of the collective labour agreement to all workers, not just to Cypriots.

Calls for renewal of collective agreement

In the resolution delivered to the Federation of Building Contractors’ Associations of Cyprus (OSEOK) by the strikers’ assemblies, the workers repeated their concerns over the problem of unfair competition. They also highlighted the failure of the government and employers to enforce the terms agreed to regulate subcontracting (CY0807039I), and the arbitrary dismissals in the sector (CY1202039I). The unions called for the immediate renewal of the sector’s collective labour agreement.

However, apart from reaching an accord on the basic terms of the agreement, the unions considered it an urgent necessity to begin a substantive dialogue aimed at promoting and implementing measures to promote the stability and growth of the construction industry. As part of this dialogue, the unions have identified the process of certifying job qualifications of those working in the sector as a priority. They want this as an additional measure to deal with undeclared, low-paid and uninsured work, and to combat unemployment in the sector.

Unions’ efforts to reach an agreement

During a press conference held to talk about the issues, the PEO and SEK construction workers’ unions outlined the history of the renewal of the collective labour agreement, stressing workers’ constant efforts to reach an agreement in the sector. It was reported that the unions, recognising the problems faced by the sector due to the economic crisis, took part in the mediation processes with a total willingness to compromise. They were also said to have made no demands whatsoever with regard to the financial part of the agreement.

In this context, unlike the employers, the workers agreed to both mediation proposals by the Ministry of Labour and Social Insurance (MLSI). These had been submitted in the period following the first 24-hour general strike, on 31 May 2012 and 3 August 2012 respectively. The two unions say that every time the employers enter into dialogue they take a tougher position, putting forward demands that the workers regard as outrageous.

The demands, say the unions, are not limited to the construction industry, but would affect practically the entire Cypriot economy. The employers’ representatives are calling for a halt to contributions to the provident fund, fewer official holidays, the abolition of bonuses, including the 13th month’s salary, an increase in the working week from 38 to 40 hours, the abolition of overtime and wage cuts of up to 30%.

In remarks directed to the Employers and Industrialists Federation (OEB), the leaders of PEO and SEK accused the employers’ side of taking advantage of the economic crisis and the presence of the Troika – the European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB). They say the employers are aiming to erode basic workers’ rights and change the content of the collective labour agreements for the worse, effectively downgrading the role of collective bargaining in the existing system of labour relations.

The resolution taken by the strikers’ assemblies states that failure to meet their demands will bring about an escalation of the strikes.

Views from employers’ side

In statements to the media on the dispute, the President of OSEOK, Costas Roushias, limited himself to saying that although he understood the position of the workers and their right to strike, workers should also think about the economic conditions in the sector and the problems faced by contractors. He also stressed the importance of dialogue with workers to prevent the two sides from moving apart from each other.

Strike ends at General Construction Company

An open-ended strike was launched at the General Construction Company (GCC) on 8 November as a result of a dispute over the violation of the sectoral collective labour agreement, and over a large number of dismissals. Around 35 workers out of a total of 70 were dismissed while the company continued to outsource work to contractors.

All the company’s employees took part in the strike, which began at a joint construction site being run by GCC and Iakovou Brothers in Nicosia. On its second day, the strike spread to GCC sites all over Cyprus.

With a sense of guarded optimism, the construction workers’ unions PEO and SEK decided to end the strike on 14 November 2012. Information from the unions indicates that after revoking the most recent dismissals of around 15 workers, the employers pledged to enter into dialogue to find ways to preserve the jobs.

Although not officially confirmed, there is talk of GCC using subcontractors only occasionally, and a possibility of retraining workers to perform highly skilled work.

Eva Soumeli, INEK-PEO

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