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CM calls for end to bus drivers' strike action

Chief Minister Fabian Picardo speaks to Unite's Sam Hennessy and bus drivers outside No6 Convent Place. Photos by Johnny Bugeja.

Bus drivers protested outside No.6 Convent Place on Thursday morning in the second day of strike action over a pay dispute.

Around 50 to 60 Unite members of the Gibraltar Bus Company stood outside the Chief Minister’s office in an ongoing dispute stemming from their sense of being overworked and unfairly compensated.

But Chief Minister Fabian Picardo has flatly rejected that bus drivers are largely underpaid.

He called their 40% to 80% pay claim “unacceptable” and asked them to end their action so negotiations can resume, insisting the Government would not negotiate while they were on strike.

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

The walk-out comes after months of negotiations and two unsuccessful last-minute meetings with the Gibraltar Government on Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning.

Outside No.6 Convent Place on Thursday, Mr Picardo shook the bus drivers’ hands and had an exchange with Regional Officer at Unite Sam Hennessy.

Mr Hennessy put it to Mr Picardo that the bus drivers took strike action after months of unsuccessful negotiations and hit out at the Government’s “unhelpful” press statement in which it detailed some of the drivers’ salaries.

Mr Picardo, in turn, said the bus drivers had walked out without notice, leaving families unable to collect their children from school.

“If you think that we’ve acted unhelpfully, we think you’ve acted unhelpfully,” Mr Picardo said.

He told strikers the Government will not agree to pay rises of 40% to 80%, adding that they went on strike despite knowing that options would be put in writing on Friday, something which is now off the table as they are on strike.

A bus driver told Mr Picardo he was “lying through his teeth” about them earning £6,500 a month.

But Mr Picardo responded he would publish the salaries of the bus drivers to show it is true, which he did on Thursday evening.

The figures showed the top earning person in the Gibraltar Bus Company received £70,000 last year, about half of which was overtime, with the lowest earner on £23,790.

The top 11 earners had salaries of £50,000 or more, including overtime and allowances. Overall, some nine employees earned less than £30,000 out of the complement of 56 staff, even when overtime and allowances were factored in.

Overtime was the greatest contributor to higher salaries with some bus drivers more than doubling their pay on overtime alone.

But bus drivers insisted much of their overtime is forced upon them.

They added that they work 12 days in a row with shifts ranging from seven to 11 hours, with a two-day break between stints at work.

In some instances, the bus drivers said they will also work their days off, meaning they can spend a month behind the wheel.

A driver told the Chronicle that he could not make a living on basic pay alone and wants to reduce his overtime hours, but that more staff is needed to complement the service.

Unite the Union said the Government had issued a deeply offensive attempt to smear its own workers, and had grossly inflated salary figures, which were “inaccurate and unacceptable”.

“Unite representatives met with HMGOG officials on the morning of Wednesday 6th September where there was still no offer presented by the employer despite Unite previously committing to negotiations on pay, terms and conditions,” Unite said.

“This matter had been brought to HMGOG attention numerous months ago and still they have been unwilling to formulate a response in writing on pay, terms and conditions to the union which inevitably continues to prolong this dispute.”

“The initial claim that was placed by Unite on behalf of its’ membership within GBCL was based upon assessing similar roles that involve driving responsibilities across other Government owned entities.”

Unite said they have remained open to dialogue and constructive negotiations and the Government’s delays and lack of meaningful engagement have provoked a dispute which continues to impact an important service for the community.

Unite added that the entry level rate for a driver is £10.44.

“Workers in GBCL work a punishing schedule of long hours providing a service for the public especially the most vulnerable, seven days a week,” Unite said.

“Unite is requesting that going forward HMGOG does not seek to continue to prolong this dispute and the disruption being caused by finally coming forward with a proposal on pay, terms and conditions in writing that can be properly considered.”

During a session of Direct Democracy, Mr Picardo told GBC the Government will be looking at the pay agreement with Unite, which is in force until 2029.

“We’re happy to look at the whole agreement so that we can get a better deal for the taxpayer, a better deal for the drivers,” Mr Picardo said.

“Let’s sit down around the table, let’s start talking about that. But we won’t just negotiate the one thing that you want to negotiate.”

Mr Picardo added that the bus drivers have indicated they want to continue working the overtime.

The Government said it strongly disagrees with Unite’s statement and is ready to resume negotiations.

“The union’s dispute now includes all grades within the Bus Company and not just Bus Drivers, departing from the comparison that Unite does of other Public Sector driver comparators,” the Government said.

“It is as a result of this that the Government is faced with a union claim which amounts to up to an 89% pay rises.”

“The Government does not consider that this is a credible or serious negotiating position for Unite to have taken, even as an opening negotiating position.”

The Government said the claim was not realistic in any way, particularly when the substantive duties of a Bus Driver have remained unchanged over the period.

It added its statements over pay were entirely correct and published a schedule of pay at the Bus Company.

“The Government cannot ignore the unhelpful union allegation it is misleading or attempting to mislead its staff or the public on matters of such importance,” the Government said.

“Despite that, the Government reiterates its desire to return to the negotiation table to address all issues that require negotiation, not just pay, and calls on Unite to end the strike action and return to negotiations.”

“That would be in the interests of the public, the Bus Drivers and all tax-payers.”

The row was being closely monitored by the Opposition.

GSD MP Damon Bossino attended the strike action outside No.6 Convent Place, where he said that negotiations need to be held on facts.

“I’m happy that the Chief Minister has come down and spoken to them face to face,” Mr Bossino said.

“I’m told that the encounter wasn’t that positive and it hasn’t ended in a good way from our perspective.”

“We simply want the issue resolved as soon as possible so that their service can continue to be provided to the Gibraltarian public.”

“But I think it’s important also to add that we need clarification on the facts we have. On the one side, the Government saying that the bus drivers earn a humongous amount of money, as they would say, whilst on the worker’s side they’re saying that is not true, let’s negotiate, let’s stop the lies and let’s negotiate on facts.”

In a statement, Together Gibraltar said it was “deeply concerned” about the Government's approach to the recent bus drivers' strike.

“The government decided to publish the top salaries of a few employees knowing it would rile up public opinion,” TG said.

“Doing this rather than engaging with the plight of those on lower salaries, who are most in need of a pay increase, reflects a concerning tendency toward populism over constructive problem-solving.”

“How does a socialist government feel about the fact that members of the public are quoting their press release to spread messages insulting bus drivers on social media?”

TG also said it was bizarre for the Government to use the cost implications of running a free bus service against the bus drivers, adding it was the GSLP’s decision to offer this service for free.

“This situation exposes a broader issue that Together Gibraltar has long pointed out, the lack of transparency in government-owned companies,” TG said.

“Such opacity only serves to foster distrust and misinformation, undermining the very foundations of democratic governance. We strongly urge the Government to foster an environment of transparency, rather than concealing salaries until they can be weaponised.”

“Together Gibraltar also criticises the Government for using low wages in other sectors as a cudgel to attack those who have managed to get a good deal.”

Party leader Nick Calamaro added that the Government should be focusing on modernising the economy and raising wages in the private sector, not using their lack of progress to hold workers down.

Together Gibraltar said it trusts that the Government, the employees, and Unite will deal with this matter in a mature and responsible manner.

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