In messages to workers, bare tension between Govt and Opposition
Political messages ahead of Workers’ Memorial Day and May Day this year laid bare stark tension between the Gibraltar Government and the Opposition on the challenges facing public and private sector workers against the backdrop of Brexit uncertainty and Gibraltar’s battered public finances.
While the Gibraltar Government focused on the importance of Workers’ Memorial Day to remember the sacrifices of past generations and the importance of health and safety in the workplace, both the GSD and Together Gibraltar focused on the impact that economic challenges and the lack of clarity over a Brexit agreement for the Rock could have on Gibraltar’s workforce.
In his message, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo reflected on what he described as his Government’s commitment to ensuring safety in the workplace.
He cited, for example, the anti-bullying legislation which will be reformed following a recent high-profile court case and the advice of the Court of Appeal.
And he underscored too his administration’s decision to ensure both Workers’ Memorial Day and May 1 were marked as official public holidays to remind the community of the sacrifices made by past generations of workers to fight for better conditions in the workplace.
“In the time that we have been in government to date, no worker has lost his life at work,” Mr Picardo wrote.
“That is a track record to be proud of.”
“We have invested in the infrastructure of Health & Safety at work, and will continue to do so.”
“But every day we have to ensure that we fight for the living by remembering the sacrifices of those who have come before.”
As he has done many times in the past, Mr Picardo reflected on the fact that he is the grandson of a man who died in an accident at work.
He said he remembered his grandfather every day.
“And every year on the 28th of April, I remember not just him but also all others who have lost their lives at work or have been injured at work,” he wrote.
“The whole world, and certainly the whole of Gibraltar, should pause to think of all those in similar circumstances.”
“Remember the dead. Fight for the living.”
“You cannot repeat it often enough.”
On the Opposition benches, however, the messages ahead of Workers’ Memorial and May Day were stern and unforgiving in their criticism of the Government.
Keith Azopardi, the Leader of the Opposition, said the combined impact of uncertainty over a Brexit deal for Gibraltar, coupled to the dire state of public finances, could impact workers’ incomes, rights and aspirations.
He noted that Gibraltar had yet to obtain a safe and beneficial framework for a new relationship with the EU, repeating past criticisms that in the GSD’s view, the Government should have by now obtained protections for citizens.
“Despite assurances given a year ago by the Government that residents would continue to have freedom of movement while the negotiations were ongoing, residents who are Blue ID Card holders are not only facing discriminatory treatment at the border but are now being turned back,” he said in the message.
“Measures such as those should have been pre-empted.”
“It is no good for the Government to point fingers when it was obvious that problems could arise at the border if things lay unresolved for so long.”
He said the GSD had predicted problems of this nature many months ago, adding: “This has been a painfully slow and mishandled negotiation so far.”
Mr Azopardi also highlighted the GSD’s concerns about the “mishandling” of public finances and a “whopping” deficit expected to be as high as £90m.
He said the state of public finances, bruised by Brexit and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, was worsened by “reckless mismanagement of public finances” over the last 10 years.
“This will have a further knock-on effect as to how much money there is for wage increases, tax breaks, benefits or investment in public services,” he said.
He questioned why people should trust a Government that “misspends” public money even while asking the community to “tighten its belt.”
“These things are important because it affects workers, jobs, prospects, terms and conditions, salary aspirations and pension aspirations for retirement,” he said.
“It can affect people at all levels and of all ages.”
“Whether they are youngsters looking for a job or people looking to retire after decades of working. It affects people and businesses in all sectors.”
“That is why the twin issues of our finances and negotiations with the EU are so important and why trust is increasingly being lost in this Government.”
“There is a need to put the safe management of our economy and public finances in different hands.”
“That is the best way of protecting workers and families in the future.”
There was similar sentiment from Together Gibraltar’s Marlene Hassan Nahon, who said in her message that many Gibraltarians were finding themselves “dragged under a wave of austerity and job precarity” the likes of which had not been seen for many years.
And she was clear as to where she believed the blame lay.
“Gibraltar has been plunged into a deep economic crisis by the mishandling of our public affairs,” she said in her message.
Ms Hassan Nahon acknowledged the impact of Brexit and Covid-19 but said the Government had signalled an end to the “age of entitlement” even prior to both crises.
She bemoaned the use of supply companies to “fill holes” in the public system, a strategy which she said progressively encroached on the quality of public services and subjected many workers to low-wage, zero-hours contracts.
She cited problems at the GHA, in the care sector and at ERS to illustrate her points.
“All this occurs because we have a sparsely regulated private sector that allows workers to be exploited, overworked, paid wages that are incompatible [with] Gibraltar costs of living, and subjected to discriminatory indignities like not having a single day of paid paternal leave in the 21st century,” she wrote.
“This, combined with a total lack of investment in professional training/apprenticeship programmes of any kind,
condemns those unwilling or unable to take on higher education opportunities to fend for themselves in the lower echelons of a private sector designed to cater for migrant labour, and allows working conditions unworthy of a rich, European nation.”
Ms Hassan Nahon said the public deficit and ongoing economic instability meant “things are only going to get worse.”
The next few years, she believes, will define the lives of several generations of young Gibraltarians.
“If we do not resist this trend, they are going to find themselves struggling to find stable, well-paid employment and thus unable to access the kind of opportunities their parents enjoyed,” she added.
“We cannot allow workers and our public services to bear the brunt of this crisis. It is not fair, it is not economically sound, and it is not what Gibraltarians want.”
“If elements of privatisation are inevitable, then we cannot have a private sector where workers are treated as second-class, dispensable citizens.”
“In a nation where the super-rich pay less taxes than the working classes and the ruling elite live lives of unspeakable opulence, we need to find ways to cut (real) waste, raise revenue and implement socialist alternatives to the degradation of workers rights, and we need to foster strong bonds of solidarity between workers from near and far to make that happen.”