Interview with the General Secretary of the Pancyprian Federation of Labour (PEO) Sotiroulla Charalambous

1 January 2023, “Haravgi” newspaper

  • The DISY government has shown what it means to have the executive power identified with the interests of employers
  • January is crucial for the Cost of Living Allowance issue, our reaction will be dynamic and universal
  • We will intensify our struggle so that the basic terms of sectoral agreements, through legislation, will be binding for all workers in the respective sector
  • It is obvious that employer’s goal is to abolish the Cost of Living Allowance
  • A framework that sets out how labour relations are regulated on digital platforms is imperative

HARAVGI: As of today (1 January 2023), the National Minimum Wage (NMW) has begun to be implemented. What points does PEO disagree with?

SC: Essentially, what we were saying could not be the conclusion has indeed happened. Areas are covered that today were not covered, but many elements that make up the terms and conditions of employment have been left unregulated. Due to the immense deregulation that has occurred in recent years, these elements should have been included in the decree so that the NMW acts as a protective shield for those workers not covered by a Collective Labour Agreement (CLA) and so that the minimum is not be used as a mechanism to further erode the CLA.  Beyond that, the level of the NMW itself cannot be considered a dignified wage.

For these reasons, we disagree with three key aspects.

Namely, that a NMW has been decided without regulating for how many hours this salary is. Essentially the salary of €885 can be received by someone who works 38 hours and also by someone who works 48 hours. This is a crucial issue, because you do not actually have a minimum wage, but different wages depending on how many hours one works.

Furthermore, the issues of overtime are also unregulated. That is, if someone works beyond their normal working hours, how will they be rewarded? Will they get a 13th month salary? Will his or her salary be automatically indexed?

And the other thing that we strongly disagreed with and consider to be very dangerous, is the fact that it has not been clarified that where there is an agreed minimum wage in a collective agreement, for those professions the minimum will be the one outlined in the contract.

HARAVGI: The government argues that even previously, where workers were paid the minimum wage, these issues were not regulated.

SC: This argument has no basis. Before deregulation and the reduction in the number of workers covered by collective agreements, these issues were regulated because we had more people covered by collective agreements. Secondly, before this great roller coaster of the economic crisis and the policies that were implemented, even where there were no CLA, employers were forced to follow and implement certain key issues because of the momentum created by the power of the organization, which was the majority.

HARAVGI: Can changes be made and in what way?

SC: Of course changes can be made by amending the decree. The decree must include the hours – which cannot be different from what was agreed at the highest level (38 hour working week) – in relation to how overtime is compensated, working on holidays, etc.

The question is whether the political will exists to make such changes. It is obvious that there is no such will on the part of the DISY government. What we can do is to continue the struggle to introduce these basic issues in the CLA and at the same time intensify our struggle so that the basic terms of sectoral agreements, through legislation, are mandatory for all workers in the respective sector.

This is the battle that is being waged right now in the construction industry, where we are at an impasse in the negotiations. Our main demand is that the wages for newly hired workers for the various occupational categories – as agreed in the contract – should be introduced in the law that exists for the basic conditions of employment in the construction industry, so that they apply to all workers. This position should also be supported by the employers’ associations, because the non-implementation of the CLA not only harms workers, but also healthy competition between companies.

HARAVGI: Is this one of the objectives you are setting for the New Year?

SC: It is a goal that we have been setting for several years. We have taken some steps, such as the law that makes 4 key elements of the Collective Bargaining Agreement in the construction industry mandatory for all workers in the industry.

The struggle to have legally binding wages for specific occupations in the hotel industry was waged with the same goals too.

One of our main objectives for the coming year is to continue this struggle, with the aim that the basic terms of the contracts, especially where they are sectoral, are mandatory for all workers in the given industry. Furthermore, we will continue to push for an amendment to the NMW decree.

HARAVGI: The dialogue on the Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) has gone beyond the timeframe as employers are insisting on its abolition. We know that there has been a meeting of all trade union organisations and that more will follow. Where are we on this issue today?

SC: It is obvious that on the employers’ side there is an insistence on abolishing the COLA. We see this scenario every time there are discussions about the COLA.

The 2017 transitional agreement that has expired clearly sets out that we are aiming for a new agreement to deliver the COLA to its philosophy. Therefore, as long as the Minister does not express clearly the position that that is the goal and nothing else, there is room for employers to be intransigence.

In the two meetings we had with the Minister we put forward our thoughts on how we can fulfill the objective of returning the COLA back to its philosophy. And we’ve made it clear that the Minister needs to take a position. He cannot play the role of Pontius Pilate. He has to take a stand, either by putting forward a proposal in the letter and spirit of the agreement or by declaring a deadlock.

As PEO, we have made it clear that we will defend the COLA, as we have done in previous years. For us, there can be no deal with the continuation of the status quo because it is being suggested that if there is no agreement, the COLA will continue to be paid at 50%. Let me make it clear that in all cases where we do not have an agreement, the existing agreement will continue to apply, but that does not mean that the matter ends there.

In coordination with the rest of the trade union movement, we will have no choice but to see what steps we will take to defend the COLA, but also that it is delivered according to its philosophy. If there is no conclusion, we will decide what our reaction will be, which will be dynamic and universal. January will be a decisive month for the COLA issue. This pending issue cannot drag on any longer.

HARAVGI: How do you respond to the employers’ argument that the COLA is anachronistic and fuels inflation?

SC: We don’t consider COLA an anachronism, but a reasonable and fair mechanism so that what workers lose due to inflation is made up for.

There are many reports that have been released from time to time that point out that the COLA has contributed greatly to stability in terms of labour relations. At the same time, recent reports released by the European Commission note that in the case of Cyprus, the existence of the purchasing value replacement mechanism through the COLA helps to keep labour income stable, which in turn generates consumption and growth. Let us not forget that to a large extent the growth prospects of the Cyprus economy depend on consumption.

Since there is a deliberate attempt by employers to tell us that the COLA should be abolished and that we should find other ways of setting wages, the answer is that we cannot confuse the two. Productivity is one thing and GDP growth is another. Let alone it’s a bit hypocritical and hides what employer’s real intentions are.

In recent years we have had growth rates that were considered a record for Europe. But did this growth lead employers to grant pay increases? It is obvious that their aim is to abolish the COLA. Basically they want to abolish everything in collective agreements that sets a framework for regulating how wages are set. They want to leave everything in vague terms with ambiguous concepts that will depend on the goodwill of employers.

HARAVGI: Recently Wolt food service company’s delivery drivers went on strike. What is the situation in relation to digital platforms?

SC: We have been raising for a very long time the issue of regulating the employment conditions of workers on digital platforms. When the debate on the legislative regulation of teleworking – was underway under Zeta Emilienidou’s Ministry – in the positions we had submitted we also raised the issue of regulating work on digital platforms. Because from information that came to us and from the study that we began to carry out, it was obvious to us that it was still a form of work where the real employer was being concealed in a very devious way.

In fact, stressing the need to study this issue in depth and to map out what the situation on the ground is in Cyprus, we had submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Labour to fund a study to be carried out by the Labour Research Institute of PEO in cooperation with the [right-wing] trade union confederation of SEK.

Unfortunately, to this day and after what has come to light, the Ministry of Labour finds various excuses not to fund this study. I say this because during the strike some people claimed that we suddenly woke up and decided to deal with the issue. We have been trying for a long time, gathering evidence, communicating with workers on some platforms to get an insight.

HARAVGI: Where do you identify the main problems in this area?

SC: The current situation is obviously problematic.

The first problem that emerges, which is a specific Cypriot characteristic, is that the majority of workers come from third countries. They are students or political asylum seekers who, through intermediaries who appear as the employers of foreign workers, actually end up working for digital platforms. This, in our view, highlights another major issue, which has to do with how work permits are issued to employers and what scrutiny is exercised by the Ministry.

Following our intervention, the Labour Inspectorate conducted an investigation at the workplace, but we have still not been informed of the results of the inspection.

HARAVGI: What is PEO seeking?

SC: I think their struggle has sent out very positive messages. The most important thing is that through worker’s organisation you can achieve things. On our part, as PEO we will do everything possible together with the workers, who have formed a local committee and are involved in the negotiations.

Our objective is twofold: we think it is positive that this struggle has forced the Ministry of Labour to intervene and we have to sit at the table with the companies to see how we put in place a framework of regulations that will provide dignified working conditions for these workers. At the same time, we believe that it is imperative that there is also an umbrella framework that defines how labour relations are regulated on digital platforms.

HARAVGI: Flexible forms of employment are on the rise, turning workers into cheap labour. How can a barrier be put in place?

SC: We understand that the economy is changing and increasingly technology is entering the economy. That’s not the problem here. The issue is how these flexible forms are used.

Let me give you an example. In the last 10 years, in trying to answer how to reconcile family and work obligations – of course, in the context of the neoliberal concept that the state should take on less responsibility in supporting families, so the infrastructure and care system has been degraded – the idea has been promoted that this fine balance can be achieved through teleworking. Indeed, numerous working people have found this option very attractive. The pandemic has shown that when there is no framework to regulate working hours and who covers the costs, what was considered good and ideal becomes a mechanism where the worker becomes the subject of acute exploitation.

So our goal must be full employment. Where and when these forms are chosen, they must be by agreement and not by coercion. There must be a regulated framework and through the CLA’s, as was the case, for example, at the Cyprus Telecommunications Authority (CYTA), for teleworking. At the same time, it is important to have so-called umbrella legislation.

Look what happened with the teleworking bill. At the same time as the employers were vocal preachers of flexibility, just as teleworking was about to be regulated, citing that the debate in the EU was not yet over, they persuaded the Minister – who identified with them – to set it aside. The real reasons were that they would be obliged to cover the cost of employees’ expenses for working from home and the right to disconnect would be ensured.

HARAVGI: What measures does PEO propose to tackle the issue of price hikes/expensiveness and inflation?

SC: What has been done so far cannot be considered satisfactory. The government does not want to hurt powerful interests. We have seen this in the way it deals with the issue of the windfall profits of oil and renewable energy companies.

At the same time, the government is exploiting inflation and price hikes/expensiveness to increase state revenues without taking measures to provide protection to working people and vulnerable groups of the population. It is no coincidence that it is content with applying one-off measures that assume a pre-election character. It essentially uses windfall revenues to give small cheques to some groups, but it does not intervene in a meaningful and institutional way. In Spain, VAT on basic necessities has been eliminated or drastically reduced. The Cypriot government can do it too, but it doesn’t want to.

We now have the big issue of interest rates. What is the role and intervention of the state on this issue? It is letting banks play the game, which will also generate windfall profits. It is not taking any measures to protect or support borrowers, who may soon see their loans turn into non-performing loans and their homes put in danger.

Windfall profits must be taxed and these resources should be used to pursue a meaningful substantive social policy. For example, housing policy, which virtually no low and middle income worker today can think of owning their own home. The government should have reduced VAT on essential goods, put a cap and increased social benefits. The amount of the Guaranteed Minimum Income is a provocation. For 2022 alone, 10% was lost due to inflation, but the amount granted remains the same as in 2014.

The positions of Andreas Mavroyiannis are fully in line with the goals of PEO

HARAVGI: Many people are not participating in the elections, as they believe that no matter what the government is, they cannot change things. Are they right?

SC: The experience of this year has once again confirmed the Anastasiades-DISY government’s identification with the interests of the employers. The way the issue of the minimum wage and teleworking has been handled is indicative.

They have satisfied the demands and wishes of employers. The role that the executive power can play as the guardian of the labour relations system and as a mechanism that can contribute to cohesion and the reduction of social inequalities has been highlighted once again.

There are many other examples over these 10 years of the one-sided serving of employer’s interests to the detriment of working people. Whose interests have been served by the 7-day working week and the liberalisation of working hours? There is also the issue of the purchase of services scheme, where the government is not implementing two court decisions and is itself a mechanism for cheap labour.

The government’s handlings have confirmed what it means to have executive power in the hands of forces who are ideologically and politically aligned with the interests of employers. That is why presidential elections are always of particular importance for workers, as they are for society as a whole.

Fully aware that we are the ones who change lives through our organisation and struggles, we do not underestimate the importance and role of the executive power in the lives of workers.

PEO has never hidden the importance of the executive power to working people and that is precisely why in this battle we have chosen to support a candidate whose positions support working people, the dignity of work, the need to take action to reduce these huge inequalities that have accumulated.

Our support for the independent candidate Andreas Mavroyiannis is the result of the positions he has presented and outlined before PEO – and are included in his programme of governance – on the major issues affecting workers. They are positions that are fully in line with the objectives and demands of our movement.