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Controversy ahead of union demo today

Unite the Union will lead a demonstration in the heart of town today in protest against unfair employment practices it claims have become increasingly common in Gibraltar.

Gibraltar’s other unions the GGCA and NASUWT Gibraltar will support the demonstration having agreed to work together to highlight the “misuse” of supply and agency workers.

Additionally, the GSD has thrown its weight behind the action having worked to draw attention to the issue in and out of Parliament since before the last general election in 2015.

But the run-up to the demonstration proved controversial yesterday, as Unite accused the Gibraltar Government of taking steps to make it difficult for civil servants and public sector workers to participate.

At the heart of the row was an instruction issued by Chief Secretary Darren Grech to Heads of Department across the civil service, in which he advised that any workers attending the demonstration should have the absence logged and their pay deducted for the time missed.

Additional, department heads were told not to approve any new annual leave requests for today and to ensure minimum staffing levels were maintained.

Unite said this was at odds with the government’s public statement supporting the right of union members to demonstrate.

“Unite believes that the instructions being given do not facilitate the walkout as stated by the Government of Gibraltar public statement,” Unite said.

“In fact, it appears to be geared to obstruct the demonstration and to negatively impact on the number of attendees from the public sector.”

But the government reacted with surprise and said the instruction given by the Chief Secretary was the standard one issued ahead of any union demonstration, irrespective of who it was targeted at.

It pointed out that Unite was aware of this and, in a circular to members, had already advised that the union would partly cover any pay deductions arising from members attending the demonstration.

“The government has not and will not stand in the way of this demonstration, nor will it tolerate anyone acting to threaten or intimidate those who want to exercise their legitimate right to strike,” the government said in a statement.

The demonstration will commence at Casemates Square as from 3.30pm and will be followed by a march on No.6 Convent Place.

The timing means most civil servants will have finished work by the time the protest starts, something Unite itself acknowledged in its circular to members.

‘EXPLOITATIVE’
In an opinion piece for this newspaper Stuart Davies, the newly appointed National Officer responsible for Unite Gibraltar, set out why, in Unite’s view, the demonstration is so important.

The union recognises the crucial role undertaken by agency workers and this demonstration is not anti-agency worker, Mr Davies said.

“Deployed correctly to manage unforeseen absences or peaks in workload, agency workers compliment the permanent employees well in delivering within the workplace.”

“Why though should agency workers who are carrying out the same role as permanent colleagues be paid less, enjoy less holidays etc? If an agency arrangement is going to last for a prolonged period and where these agency workers are part of the established staffing levels required in a workplace, why should these roles not be permanent, providing workers with security of employment, decent terms and conditions, quality training and career opportunities?”

“The short answer is that there is no reason, other than some neo-liberal economic thinking that opines that employers should have greater flexibility to hire and fire, to pay lower rates of pay and to feed off of genuine fears of job insecurity to control their workforce.”

Current legislation in Gibraltar enables an employer to engage an agency worker for twelve months before having to provide parity with permanent colleagues in respect of pay and other basic conditions of employment.

This twelve month qualifying period is at odds with the same UK legislation where the qualifying period for parity is twelve weeks as opposed to months.

GSD MP Daniel Feetham said: “The time has come for the community as a whole to take a stand against these exploitative practices.”

“Every Government for decades has used supply workers to cover for genuine short term absences.”

“Only this Government has decided to run large parts of the public service on cheap labour on the backs of agency workers.”

“It is important that as a community we send a clear message that we will not stand idly by while people, most of whom are youngsters, are forced to work on the minimum wage, some for years, with little or no leave entitlement while recruitment agencies are milking it at the expense of the taxpayer.”

“Enough is enough and the Government has to intervene to protect workers from the scourge of labour abuses such as zero hours contracts. Gibraltar is a generous and fair community.”

“We cannot continue to tolerate exploitation of this sort.”

Mr Feetham added: “The organisers, Unite the Union, have asked that politicians themselves should not attend the demonstration and we certainly respect that request.”

“Those attending and organisers should know however that the GSD remains committed to addressing the issues of agency workers as we have repeatedly stated for many years.”