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Bus service grinds to halt as drivers strike over pay

Photos by Johnny Bugeja.

The bus service across Gibraltar ground to a halt at midday on Wednesday when drivers and staff walked out over an ongoing pay dispute.

Bus drivers ended their routes, changed their destination displays to ‘out of service’ and one by one parked in the depot by the Dockyard on Queensway.

Over 98% of Unite members of the bus company voted in favour of strike action, and after months of negotiations and two unsuccessful last-minute talks with the Gibraltar Government on Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, the walkout began.

Staff are calling for pay parity with other drivers working for the Government, particularly GJBS, who they say earn £4 more an hour.

Currently bus drivers earn £10.43 an hour, Regional Officer for Unite Sam Hennessy told the Chronicle.

The Gibraltar Government rejected the action and said the pay claim amounted to between 40% to 80% depending on grade, adding that some drivers earned as much as £78,000 a year when overtime and allowances were factored in.

For the drivers, the crux of the issue is parity on basic pay, which they say lags behind. One driver explained how, with a low basic pay, he cannot even get a mortgage on a flat in a government affordable housing scheme.

The drivers described how they are trained in their roles, vetted and have more responsibilities than the average driver due to the number of people of all ages at any time in the vehicle.

But the Gibraltar Government on Wednesday hit out against the pay claim lodged by the Unite members, calling their wages “extremely generous” and the claim “unacceptable”.

There are around 50 to 60 bus drivers on strike, who on different shifts man the 20-strong fleet of vehicles.

Pay negotiations have been ongoing since last January, with action initially planned to begin on Wednesday morning.

Much to the relief of commuters, in the early hours of Wednesday morning the Government confirmed the morning service would resume as members had agreed to defer action to allow for another meeting.

Early on Wednesday morning, at local bus stops commuters described waking up to check the bus tracker in the hope the service would continue and their relief when their morning commute would not be interrupted.

But, by midday, buses began to vanish off the bus tracker with a notice that the bus locations were unavailable.

The vital service stopped with no warning, leaving commuters waiting at bus stops with no signs notifying them of the strike.

There is also no word of how long the strike action will go on for, with another meeting set for Friday.

“There will inevitably, unfortunately be a disruption to the bus service,” Mr Hennessy said.

“The disruption will be as long as Government wants to make it.”

“We want to get back to the negotiations table with them. We want them to present an offer as soon as possible. They offer Friday. Look, [it’s] Wednesday. Don't hang around, this is an urgent matter.”

He described how Unite members of the Gibraltar Bus Company are “incredibly sceptical” and feel like Friday’s promise for a meeting is another delaying tactic by the Government.

After Wednesday’s meeting, Mr Hennessy said the staff of around 70, not only including the drivers, are unwilling to wait.

“They feel that Government has just taken them for a ride and they decided to take immediate industrial action [on Wednesday] afternoon,” he said.

“Essentially, we hope that Government's going to come with an offer as soon as possible so we can get the issue resolved.”

So far, Mr Hennessy said, there have been no offers from the Government but he’s been advised options will be presented on Friday.

“There was an initial claim put forward which was based upon other driving roles in other Government-owned companies,” Mr Hennessy said.

“It wasn't just a figure plucked out of thin air.”

“We noticed that there's a significant disparity with others in Government-owned companies… that have significantly higher rates of pay on basic salary.”

“That was what the initial claim letter was based upon. We remain open to counter offers, any options they want to include.”

“We're just frustrated that they've not actually given us anything concrete yet for the membership to consider. So, if we've got nothing to consider, what other option do we have?”

The bus drivers work significant overtime and long hours but, Mr Hennessy said, they are not being fairly paid.

The Government rejected this describing how bus drivers earn far beyond the Gibraltar average.

“The Government determines that Bus Company Bus Drivers in Gibraltar enjoy extremely
generous wages with most earning far beyond the Gibraltarian average earning of £3,568.20 for monthly paid full-time employees as per the Statistics Office's Employment Survey Report 2022,” the Government said.

“Some drivers already earn between £5,500 and £6,500 per month (£66,000 to £78,000 per year) with overtime and allowances.”

The Government said it was “extremely surprised and upset” with the actions that have now been taken by the Gibraltar Bus Company staff.

It added a 40% to 80% pay claim, dependent on grade, is unacceptable.

“For the purposes of context, the Bus Company and Unite have a standing agreement, signed in 2019 which provided that existing pay for Bus Drivers would stand, and rise in line with public sector pay rises, until 2029. HMGOG continues to abide by this,” the Government said.

“The annual cost of the Bus Company since it was made a free service to residents is a loss to the public purse in financial terms in the region of £5m per year. The Government is committed to continue to provide the free service to residents whilst maintaining its parallel duty to taxpayers and the private sector.”

The Government said it is against renegotiating the basic pay of drivers exclusively in light of the agreement at the Bus Company.

It added that Unite was informed the Government was prepared to rescind the agreement in its totality and sit down to renegotiate the agreement in full, seeking a compromise that is justifiable and palatable for the taxpayer, improving the efficacy of the bus service.

The Government added that it deeply laments the disruption that this industrial action will have on the general public, where steps to mitigate the worst of the action are being taken.

It called on Unite to honour its agreement on the Bus Company and pursue the pathway the Government has outlined for this matter's resolution.

Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said the Government is open to a negotiation that is in the interest of the bus drivers and the taxpayer.

“I invite Unite and those who represent bus drivers to go back to work and to return to the negotiating table,” Mr Picardo said.

“We will not agree to a pay rise outside of the terms of the agreement signed by Unite but we are open to a negotiation that is in the interest of the bus drivers and taxpayer.”

“Through dialogue and negotiation, we will reach an agreement that works for all of us. With a strike and confrontation, the bus drivers will inconvenience everyone and achieve nothing – and certainly no 40-80% pay rises.”

“There are many great people who work in the Bus Company and do a great job. I know they will want to return to the negotiating table as soon as possible.”

Alternative bus services provided following strike

The Gibraltar Government confirmed the School Bus Service will continue despite the strike, with alternative arrangements made.

The Government has engaged the services of local bus operators to continue providing the School Bus Service Routes.

Users of the School Bus Routes, particularly school children, are advised that they are to expect Toyota Coasters with different livery throughout this temporary arrangement and not the red Gibraltar Bus Company fleet buses.

The Ministry of Transport said it apologises for the inconvenience caused and will keep service users updated via their dedicated social media pages.

For regular updates throughout coming days please visit the Ministry of Transport Facebook page or HMGoG_MT on Twitter.

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