Interview with the General Secretary of PEO Sotiroulla Charalambous

Interview with the General Secretary of PEO (Pancyprian Federation of Labour) Sotiroulla Charalambous:
Through our organisation and unity we can take the workers forward
Sunday 1 May 2022, “HARAVGI” newspaper

QUESTION: The pandemic is, we hope, coming to an end. How would you summarize PEO’s activity during this period?
SC: From the very beginning of the pandemic, PEO had expressed a fundamental concern. Namely that the health crisis must not be exploited to shift additional burdens on the working people who have footed the bill because of the financial crisis. This concern stemmed from the fact that the previous crisis was used to step up the deregulation of labour relations and work, to reduce labour costs and increase profits.
As we approach the end of the pandemic, what we can say is that we have generally succeeded in fulfilling one of the key objectives that we had set from the beginning. That is to say, that measures be taken to support the incomes of working people who were put out of work by the lockdown decisions.
We also managed to link the provision of support measures for businesses to the obligation for employers not to proceed to redundancies. Furthermore, as the implementation of the measures progressed, we made significant interventions where weaknesses and gaps were observed, forcing the government to improve various schemes.
QUESTION: What is the situation regarding labour issues two and a half years after the outbreak of the pandemic?
SC: The pandemic has brought to the fore numerous issues. First of all, it has highlighted the enormous importance of taking measures to ensure the safety and health of workers. It should be noted that the World Federation of Trade Union (WFTU), of which PEO is affiliated, has launched a campaign in response to the pandemic seeking to highlight how these types of problems are recognised as factors affecting safety and health and that action must be taken continuously.
The pandemic has also highlighted the new issue of teleworking. Our concern from the very outset has focused on ensuring that teleworking is not used as yet another instrument for deregulating labour relations and ensuring a cheap labour force. We therefore stressed that teleworking must be on a voluntary basis.
We have also fought within the framework of the social dialogue to ensure that a corresponding framework is prepared which sets out the basic parameters that must be observed in relation to teleworking. We are in the final stages of preparing this legislative framework.
The third and very important issue that has been confirmed is that where trade union organisation existed at the work place, where the regulations and measures that were being taken stemmed from a collective representation of the workers, we observed the least problems. Where working people were alone and unprotected without a trade union organisation, things were more difficult.
QUESTION: The debate on the minimum wage is ongoing. What is PEO’s position on the matter?
SC: The financial crisis has led to a dramatic shift in wealth. Indicative of this are the figures included in the latest annual report published by the Labour Institute of PEO, which reveals that the incomes of capital from 2011 to the third quarter of 2021 increased by 41%, while working people’s incomes rose by only 6%.
For PEO, the debate surrounding the minimum wage is part of a broader effort for the adoption of regulations that should lead to an end to the phenomenon of cheap and unregulated work without rights.
Within the same context, we assert interventions and regulations that should put collective agreements back at the very centre of the system for shaping employment conditions. We are also calling for regulations to put an end to the phenomenon of workers being classified as self-employed through the purchase of services method, and/or the phenomenon of foreign workers being exploited as cheap labour.
So, for PEO the minimum wage debate has two key aspects. The first is that the effort that began with the two major collective contracts, namely in the hotel and construction sector, which has as its main axis that the basic terms of collective agreements, including minimum wages, should be compulsory for all workers covered by these sectors, must be completed.
The second concerns those working people who do not have collective agreements, for whom there must be an agreed minimum framework of rights that should also cover wages and working hours, the Cost of Living Allowance (COLA), the 13th month salary.
QUESTION: Has a decision been taken on what the minimum wage will be?
SC: No. I understand that for journalists the debate is mainly focused on the amount of the minimum wage. But let me point out that it is not enough for a number to be cited.
The first thing that we must say is that where minimum wages exist that are agreed through collective agreements, those must be minimum wages that exceed the national minimum wage because if we do not make that clear, there is the danger of the minimum wage, that is in a collective agreement and which is higher, being eroded.
The second thing we must say concerns the Labour Ministry’s approach, according to which the minimum wage will be on an hourly basis. We agree with that. The question is for how many hours of work though?
In the cases where workers work above that, how will they be compensated for overtime or for working on Sundays and holidays? Furthermore, we also believe that the 13th month salary must be part of this package. There are other issues too.
For example, what criteria will be used to readjust the minimum wage? We believe that the Automatic Cost of Living Allowance, which aims to restore the purchasing power of wages from inflation, must definitely be attributed to the workers who will receive the minimum wage as well.
It must also be ensured that the minimum wage meets the need of working people to have a dignified income. In addition, the minimum wage must lead to a reduction in social and economic inequalities and address the problem of the working poor, a phenomenon which has increased in recent years.
It is on these parameters that we as PEO will submit specific positions and proposals in the coming period.
QUESTION: What’s the situation with COLA?
SC: The social dialogue has not started yet. We had a transitional agreement which expired at the end of 2021. In this agreement there is a reference that when it expires we will begin a social dialogue and one of the parameters in this dialogue is that COLA should fully fulfil its objective, which is of course to restore the purchasing power of wages from inflation. For us, this reference means that COLA must be fully delivered.
The trade unions have already sent a letter to the Minister of Labour and ask that the dialogue commence immediately. When the dialogue starts, everyone’s positions and intentions will be revealed.
We should note that the situation prevailing today with the sharp price hikes and high cost of living confirms how correct our position was when we insisted on the need to maintain COLA. We have managed through the struggles we have waged to maintain the COLA and we are now in a position to discuss its restoration and extension so that it also covers working people who will receive the minimum wage and do not currently receive the COLA today.
QUESTION: What other measures does PEO propose for confronting price hikes and increases?
SC: PEO, together with the rest of the People’s Movement (Note: the mass organisations of the Left) have organised numerous mobilisations in recent months on the issue of price hikes and increases. We have also tabled specific proposals. The major problem is that the government is living in a different world. It insists on pursuing the philosophy that the divine hand of the market will somehow regulate everything, at the same timer as it is following the phenomenon passively without taking action.
In our view, immediate measures must be taken in two directions. The first concerns the reduction of taxes on essential goods, a tool provided by the EU and which has been used by other countries. The possibility of imposing ceilings must be used, as well as controlling profiteering phenomena in the market, particularly in the petroleum products sector.
The second direction in which action should be taken is to increase the level of allowances in order to respond to the new conditions stemming from the price increases. For example, the Minimum Guaranteed Income (MGI) has remained at €480 since 2014, despite the rise in the inflation rate.
How will these people live in the new conditions formed by ongoing price hikes and increases? The same applies to low income pensioners, who are even being derided by the government. They got some increases last year, this year they saw their small checks cut, and then the government came in and, because of the price increases, simply gave them back what they had cut from them.
There are measures that can be taken, but unfortunately the government doesn’t demonstrate the necessary political will.
QUESTION: PEO often talks about the need for a radical restructuring of the welfare state. What do you think needs to change?
SC: There are several issues here, but the first one concerns social policies and their content. The social policy implemented by the state cannot be confined solely to the Minimum Guaranteed Income.
Apart from the issue of its amount, there is also the issue of the criteria. From the very beginning of the MGI’s implementation, we have strongly expressed the position – which we still maintain today – that people with disabilities must not be in the MGI, but should be included in a separate piece of legislation.
I should note that people who are considered to have a mild disability and who under the previous framework were receiving a benefit from the state are not covered by the MGI. As a result, they are deprived of the allowance with implications for their quality of life, particularly with regards children with disabilities.
Another characteristic example is the situation pensioners face, who in order to receive the carer’s allowance must fulfill the criteria of the MGI. As a result, many pensioners cannot receive the benefit and are forced to pay out of their own pockets for the care they need. The same applies to the criteria and conditions set for other benefits as well.
All of these problems need to be put on the table. We need to look at what goal we want each benefit to serve. There is also a need to introduce some new policies. PEO has long been asserting that a scheme should be set up to subsidise the cost of childcare in nurseries and day-care centres.
It appears we will succeed in realising this goal. The Ministry of Labour has informed us that it is preparing, together with the Deputy Ministry of Welfare, a childcare subsidy scheme within the framework of projects co-funded by the European Union. We are also demanding the introduction of paid parental leave, which is an obligation in accordance with the relevant EU Directive.
QUESTION: How can the bureaucracy and the delay in the state’s response to the needs of citizens be addressed?
SC: We consider it necessary that another parameter should be introduced into the content of policies. Local government as a social actor must be one of the key players in exercising social policy. We expect that with the Reform of Local Government that has taken place, local authorities will assume this role with the provision of sufficient financial support from the central state.
Unfortunately, in recent years, social care and social protection structures have been left mainly to the private sector, which naturally wants to maximise their profits. For that reason, it is very important that structures, such as local government, play a role in providing quality and affordable services.
The other part has to do with how the state organises its services so that they can meet citizen’s needs. These services have become impersonal. They need to open up to citizens. Instead, the coronavirus has been used as yet another pretext for these services to close their doors completely to people. Services must also be decentralised so that they can be brought closer to the citizens.
PEO has made many representations on this issue and we have submitted a number of proposals. We believe it is important that the process of utilising technology for the management of benefits should proceed and be completed as soon as possible. We have also submitted proposals to ensure that people who have applied for and are entitled to benefits are not left without income for months.
By way of example, with regards the unemployment benefit and pensions, where there are long delays, we have proposed that an initial calculation be made and that a sum be given to the beneficiary until the final calculation is made. How will a worker who has retired and waits six months or more to receive the pension to which he or she is entitled to, make ends meet during this period?
Beyond that, there is also the issue of the modernisation of Social Welfare Services, which we believe should constitute the central mechanism for the exercise and implementation of social policy. PEO has expressed our concerns in the strongest possible terms about the fact that even in this very sensitive area the policy of the purchase of services method is growing. This is a phenomenon which is eroding and creating problems in the state fulfilling its social role.
QUESTION: There are also problems with the government’s housing policy…
SC: Housing is one of the most important issues characterising a welfare state. There is an inherent weakness in the subsidy schemes that exist. In order to be able to make use of these schemes, one has to have a considerable amount of money available.
But how many young people, especially those earning 800 and 900 euros a month, can save the necessary amount or even secure a loan from the bank? Furthermore, how many young people can afford the increases, for example, in the price of building materials, which have caused the cost of building a house to reach unprecedented levels?
For that reason, there is a need to elaborate a much broader social housing scheme. Local Government Authorities need to be involved in these schemes too, so that in cooperation with the state they can become agencies for developing social housing, as is the case in other countries. Provident Funds could also be involved within this framework.
We also need to look again at rent subsidy schemes, as statistics reveal that the number of people living on rent has increased in recent years.
Joint action for the solution to the Cyprus problem is part of our daily activity
QUESTION: The Cyprus problem is perhaps at its worst point, but PEO continues to keep the hope for the solution alive…
SC: As far as PEO is concerned, joint action and the effort to keep alive the hope for a solution to the Cyprus problem is a component part of our day-to-day activity. It is part of our history. A history which is a common heritage of both Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot workers, but at the same time it also has to do with the perspective of the working people. As long as the Cyprus problem remains unresolved, no matter how many successes we may have as Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot workers, there will always be this barrier that will hinder our ability to move forward.
Despite the obstacles we have faced in the past due to the coronavirus and restrictive measures, we have developed joint action with Turkish Cypriot trade union organisations, particularly with regards the need to continue negotiations from the point where they had remained at the Crans-Montana conference on Cyprus in 2017.
We have also expressed our common concerns on numerous occasions about the fact that currently in the Turkish Cypriot community there is a leader who adheres to a two states solution as his official policy, but also about the backtracking and regressions that our own President of the Republic has unfortunately also demonstrated, which have also damaged the prospects of moving the Cyprus problem forward.
We shall continue this effort. This year, after two years, we have returned with the organisation of the joint celebration of Worker’s May Day. Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots will hold parallel marches and come together in the Cetinkaya stadium (located in the UN-administered buffer zone in Nicosia).
QUESTION: What message do you want to send to the working people in view of this year’s Worker’s May Day?
SC: Our message is that with the organization and unity of the working people, despite the difficulties and problems we face, we look to the future with faith and optimism. With the faith and optimism created by the knowledge that it is through our own struggles that we will take the working people forward.
With the faith and optimism that we carry with us from our history and experiences, but at the same time we see this faith and optimism among the working people too who are rallying their forces around the trade union movement. This is the only way we can move forward.