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Opinion & Analysis

Workers in 2021

By Marlene Hassan Nahon

The Covid pandemic has had a dramatic impact in all aspects of labour. It has destroyed jobs and companies, shifted productivity paradigms and changed the way we work profoundly. It has decimated some industries and propelled others to succeed beyond their wildest dreams.

One thing however, remains unchanged: when things get rough, only the essential services can keep society from collapsing. Doctors, nurses, law enforcement, food supply chains, teachers… it is these basic and ancestral tasks that have kept us going through the hardest times in recent history.

We have seen the limited utility of financers, stockbrokers, hedge fund managers and other traditionally highly remunerated jobs, and realised the importance of having a robust state capable of providing a social safety net.

The markets, considered by many to be the ultimate problem solvers for humanity, have shown they have little to offer in times of real crisis. That most essential jobs happen to be ill- remunerated and precarious is an injustice that needs changing.

These workers cannot be our heroes one day, only to be forgotten the next.

In Gibraltar, things have not been any different. Government programmes to protect private employment, together with our extraordinarily high rates of public sector jobs, have ensured most of our workers have not felt the full brunt of the economic collapse (unlike our public coffers, which appear to be in serious difficulty). So far we have navigated the worst of the storm, but it is not over yet.

We must remain vigilant in order to ensure that we come back from this pandemic without leaving anybody behind.

Many sectors of our economy are still struggling and in need of support. We are falling behind on the technological transitions we need to boost those economic sectors that are viable and sustainable, and help those that aren’t to reinvent themselves. In order to do this we need better investment in education and innovation. More and more people work from home, and that means that infrastructures also have to change. Information highways are becoming more important than physical ones. Communications and data are the new fuel moving our world.

We need to ensure we have the best of the best in this department, the fastest and most competitive internet and telephone services, and we need to make sure they are robust and reliable. With constant power cuts and the services being provided today, we are far from achieving this.

In Gibraltar, despite having protected jobs with a measure of success, there has been little advancement in the protection of workers’ rights. Private sector workers continue to endure very bad conditions in comparison to their public sector counterparts. In order for our private sector to thrive we need to balance out this divide, and this should be done not by eroding working conditions in the civil service, but by providing better and fairer protection to our private sector, which should be the engine of our economy. Minimum wages are still low, unemployment benefits and state pensions are meagre, statutory parental leave is discriminatory and inadequate, and workers have poor protections compared to other European countries.

Then there’s the issue of covert privatisation through agency work. Until now there were two classes of employees, those in the public and those in the private sector. In the public sector salaries were generous, as well as working conditions, benefits and protections. Over the last few years this has been progressively eroded. Many agencies, who provide precarious and badly paid work are taking over jobs that used to be done by public sector workers. They use zero-hour contracts, and other abusive practices. They periodically re-employ workers in order to side-line the protections that exist in our laws - which are lax enough to allow that. I am extremely concerned that, in the midst of this crisis and after hearing the Government refer to the civil service as a “unsustainable”, these practices are not only going to continue, but are going to get worse.

If 2020 was the year of public health, in which frontline doctors and nurses became our heroes and guardian angels, 2021 is going to be the year of mental health – particularly with regards to mental health problems arising in the workplace. If we have learned to implement protocols to protect our bodies from viral infections, there is no reason we cannot implement effective protocols to protect the mental health of our workers. Some of the necessary changes are glaringly evident: There have been high profile cases of bullying in the community, which proves that this problem exists almost at all levels. Burn out has become a real and recognised problem with global workforces, who are suffering under the weight of ever-growing pressures and competition. Anxiety and depression as a consequence of the pandemic are growing at an alarming rate, and this will have an important impact on workplaces in all sectors.

We need to take a step back and remember that a workforce cannot be productive unless (all of) its health is taken care of, and realise that the problems affecting workers need to be tackled holistically. This means that we have to look at workers rights, wages and protections, but also at human relations: creating good working environments, allowing for adequate communication and fostering a sense of fraternity and support in between workers.

Marlene Hassan Nahon is an MP and Leader of Together Gibraltar.

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