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Opinion & Analysis

What lessons can be learnt from this crisis?

by Wendy Cumming, GGCA President

For the GGCA, May Day provides an opportunity to reflect on the important issues that have emerged in the last year, with the aim of distilling and absorbing the lessons learnt and thereby (hopefully!) maintaining a process of continuous improvement for our union.

At the start of 2020, it seemed evident that the recurring theme that would merit May Day analysis was the creation of certainty as regards the employment contract; the rights and obligations arising from the employment relationship and the expectations of both the employer and employee in their dealings with each other.

At that time, the GGCA was actively involved in the renegotiation of staff handbooks for two very different sectors of our membership, and the discussions over the creation of a Public Service Code to replace General Orders for the civil service had been reopened by the GOG.

Our position in this area of our work is the same regardless of the sector involved - the more clarity that is built into the written rules governing the employer/employee relationship and the greater the effort to consult employees and ensure that they fully understand and consent to the rules established, the greater the likelihood of a positive and productive employment relationship moving forward.

Indeed, the context of uncertainty created by Brexit naturally highlighted the need for certainty in the areas within our control, and in the employer/employee relationship clarity can be best achieved via a careful and considered collective bargaining process.

Even though our Brexit troubles seemed overwhelming at times, little did we know that the Covid-19 crisis would sweep in, making even Brexit seem insignificant in comparison.

All our contemplation on certainty and clarity was disrupted by the pandemic, which has brought massive changes to the working lives of all our members; we have had to adjust how we work, where we work and even when we work, to reduce our exposure to the virus and build more
resilience to the provision of services essential to our community.

However, it is vital to remember that our most difficult and challenging moments can provide the greatest platform for growth and development. What lessons can be learnt from this crisis, our darkest hour?

Certainly, the current crisis and lockdown have shown how the civil and public service can react quickly and flexibly to rapidly changing needs and circumstances. We have seen Heads of Departments promptly establish and implement Covid-19 measures within their departments; the redeployment of staff from areas of lowered volume of work to areas of increased volume of work and an increase in usage of E-Government and remote working.

All these changes in working practice have been adopted quickly, with minimum fuss and maximum efficiency. Thus stereotypes regarding the civil and public service as slow, inefficient and resistant to change have been revealed as false and far removed from reality.

Indeed, it is very encouraging to see a positive shift in public perception, as well as the consistent acknowledgment by the official side of the efforts made by our civil and public servants.

For the GGCA, it shall be imperative to carry these attitudes forward and ensure that the new methods of work adopted throughout the crisis inform the Public Service Reform process which will no doubt be recommenced once the pandemic is over.

It is inevitable that the end of the pandemic will usher in challenging and difficult times for all of us, given that we shall have to face the economic consequences of the crisis. For all trade unions, the hints of possible austerity

measures up ahead is certainly a cause for concern. Having said that, the trade union inclusion in the Covid Emergency Liaison and Advisory Committee “CELAC” means that the voice of the worker is heard before decisions relating to the economy are made, and it is comforting to note that at this time, both business organisations and trade unions are focusing on a common aim - to ensure that businesses survive this crisis to safeguard private sector employment and a functioning economy post Covid-19.

Indeed, this is another positive lesson that can be taken from our experience of this crisis - that cooperation and collaboration between opposed organisations and interest groups is possible, positive and in the best interests of our community.

Let us hope that in this, our darkest hour, where we have felt most isolated and alone, can teach us the most important and lasting lesson of all - the value of collaboration, cooperation, solidarity and togetherness.

At the end of the day, what will truly determine our ability to survive and even thrive beyond Covid-19 will be our ability to put our differences aside and work together for a common aim - the best interests of our community.