INTERVIEW with the new General Secretary of the class-based trade union federation of PEO Sotiroula Charalambous

“Ergatiko Vima” weekly newspaper of PEO, 22 December 2021
The General Council of PEO elected by the 28th Pancyprian Congress of the Federation elected Sotiroula Charalambous as the new General Secretary. The first woman General Secretary of a Trade Union Organization in Cyprus talks to “E.V.” about the priorities of the Movement of PEO, the challenges it faces and the goals it has set for the future. At the same time, she considers every change in the leadership of PEO over the 80 years of the Organization’s existence as a constant struggle with one principal goal, which is nothing other than the struggle to achieve a better tomorrow for working people.
QUESTION: First of all, how do you feel as the first woman to be elected to the position of General Secretary of a trade union organisation in Cyprus and what does this mean for PEO itself?
SC: The fact that the General Council of PEO elected a woman to the position of General Secretary of our Federation, I believe is the result of the systematic and collective work that has been done over the years under the leadership of the previous General Secretary and the Women’s Bureau of PEO on equality issues and in general is also due to our positions and understanding of the role women play at work, the specific demands that our Movement is asserting for women workers, but also within our ranks too on the position of women within the Trade Union Movement itself.
So bearing this in mind, when it came to the question of filling the post of General Secretary, gender was not something that could be an obstacle. The assessment was made by those who elected me on the basis of our Organization’s needs. But of course I think that the election has its semantic importance as well, given that PEO is the first Trade Union Federation in Cyprus to elect a woman (to this position), while this also demonstrates the work we are doing. At the same time it makes the responsibility PEO has in ensuring equality even greater, since it is an Organisation that from the moment it was founded has raised these issues as an integral part of the demands projected by the working class. We shall continue our efforts towards this end.
However, beyond the semantic importance of the election, what is more important is to see what more we can do to enable men and women to participate on an equal footing and with equality and to see many more women in leading positions and assuming leadership responsibilities with in the trade union movement, combatting stereotypes and anachronistic mentalities.
QUESTION: Gender equality issues at work, equal pay and the provision of facilities for families of working women, especially mothers, have always been high among PEO’s priorities. Now that a woman has been elected to the post of General Secretary, who has also served as Secretary of the Women Workers’ Bureau of PEO, will this issue be given even more impetus?
SC: The emphasis that needs to be placed on issues of equality and the provision of facilities to working families should not have anything to do with the fact that there is currently a woman in the leadership of the Federation. Of course there is a sensitivity, but the same sensitivity was also shown by the previous General Secretary of PEO.
We need to highlight these issues by definition because it is obvious when the Trade Union Movement of PEO sets its objectives today and one of them is to assert dignified jobs and work with rights this also means ensuring support for working women.
Life itself has proved that for women to be able to work in dignified conditions and not be forced to resort to unregulated work, the appropriate infrastructures must be in place. In order for working families to be able to cope and combine family and work, the state must support them by covering the cost of care through the establishment of infrastructures that should operate at compatible hours. It is precisely for this reason that we must place greater emphasis through our assertions and demands of our Movement on these issues.
I believe that our Congress has set very specific goals and objectives. We must stress the need for the state and local government to demand adequate and affordable infrastructures to serve the needs of families who have infants, elementary school children, who have elderly or disabled persons in their care. We place great emphasis on the need to subsidize the cost of care, according to income criteria.
QUESTION: In Cyprus, is equal pay and equal opportunities at the workplace between men and women given in 2021? Where exactly are we on this question as far as the private sector is concerned?
SC: The issue of equal pay is a very, very big issue and as we have said many times, we have a long way to go to enshrine it in legislation and to implement equal pay in practice. Steps forward have been taken and a lot of effort has been made to ensure that there are no discriminatory clauses in collective agreements.
More specifically, in the demands we have been pursuing in recent years, particularly after the implementation of the equal pay Law, we have stressed that the salaries of newly hired entrants should be supported in particular, and this is one way to implement equal pay.
However, specifically with regards the private sector, we have a way to move in three directions: One direction has to do with the set of demands to improve employment conditions in professions where there is a large number of women. The second direction concerns occupational classifications as they are currently included in collective agreements. We need to examine whether they contain elements that create indirect discrimination. The third direction concerns the discussion surrounding regulations that re-regulate work and establish minimum employment conditions for all workers.
All this can help towards closing the gap in pay between men and women in the private sector. Of course, there is still a big issue here, which has to do with the promotion of flexible forms of employment, which is another mechanism for deregulating labour relations that primarily adversely affects women.
One such form of employment is teleworking, which may sound nice, especially to women who may consider it as a way of combining work and family life. However, it must be ensured that it is indeed a free choice for the employee and not an imposition by the employer and where and when this form of employment is chosen it must consequently be regulated as part of the contracts concluded so that it is not used as a form of employment with fewer rights, longer working hours and an unregulated framework.
QUESTION: The recent Pancyprian Congress defined the objectives of PEO for the coming years. What are they?
SC: As with every Congress of PEO, the 28th Congress approved objectives that relate to both labour and wider social issues, since PEO is not a Trade Union Organisation in the narrow sense that limits its activity to simply improving working people’s employment conditions, but it is an Organisation that has a role to play and makes interventions on wider social issues that affect working people’s lives.
It is obvious from the pre-Congress procedure and from the Congress itself that we have set very high priorities, such as the introduction of rules that re-regulate work and put an end to this situation that has been created in recent years. We must put an end to the phenomenon of forcing workers to work without contracts, on personal contracts, the exploitation of foreign workers as cheap labour, the extensive use of the purchase of services and outsourcing, and using workers as self-employed when they clearly have an employer-employee relationship.
All these issues that we have to do with re-regulation have been put at the forefront of our priorities and it is no accident that this is the case because if a brake is not put on these deregulation mechanisms then labour will become cheaper and cheaper, and more and more vulnerable. In addition, the proportion of working people who do not have a minimum regulated framework of rights will increase more and more, and for that reason social inequality will expand.
From there onwards, there are social issues that are very important and need to be addressed and resolved. These issues include the question of the Automatic Cost of Living Allowance and the strategy concerning the employment of foreign workers, which is another issue on which a dialogue has started. We are very clear on our approach on this issue. If and where permits for the employment of foreign workers will be issued this will be done after a process which through dialogue and evidence proves that there are needs that cannot be covered otherwise and a fundamental precondition we demand is that a Collective Agreement for all workers is applied. Besides, for PEO the issue is not the origin of each worker, but that the employment of foreign workers is not used as cheap labour and leads to further deregulation and devaluation of labour.
Furthermore, our priorities including issues concerning price hikes and the need for compensatory measures to provide support to vulnerable groups of the population and working people. Of course, social policy issues are another priority. It is obvious that, taking into account both the unequal distribution of incomes and the fact that in recent years labour has been devalued and profits have soared, there is a need to make radical changes in social policy and increase pensions.
This also raises the major issue of the 12% charge imposed on those working people who choose to retire at the age of 63, which PEO has been calling for its abolition, as well as the non-extension of the retirement age beyond 65. Among our priorities, of course, are the issues relating to housing and the granting of facilities for working families.
All these issues have been raised at our Congress and decisions have been approved to assert and promote them.
QUESTION: At what stage is the dialogue on the minimum wage at?
SC: In essence, the study carried out by the International Labour Organization (ILO) has been presented and a new meeting between the trade unions, employers with the Minister of Labour has been set for 23 December. The ILO has taken a coherent and clear position on how it addresses the introduction of a minimum wage.
We perceive this issue within a broader framework of measures that need to be introduced to support work with regulated terms of employment. What that means for PEO is that on the one hand the state has a responsibility to introduce regulations that ensure that where and when there are minimum wages and other basic terms in Collective Agreements, these are the minimum that should apply to every worker who works in a sector where there is a Collective Agreement. On the other hand, for workers whose terms of employment are not covered by the Agreement, then again through negotiation there should be a tripartite mechanism that results in a wage and other benefits. We therefore expect that now the dialogue will be intensified and completed.
QUESTION: When do you expect the dialogue on the reintroduction of the Automatic Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) to begin?
SC: The agreement concluded on COLA has expired and in the period ahead we will be approaching the Ministry of Labour calling for a dialogue to begin with a view to concluding a new agreement on COLA. Our goal is to restore the COLA because as it stands today it only returns 50% of the purchasing power to those working people who receive COLA. We will therefore fight to restore COLA as normal. In addition, we will struggle to ensure that all working people receive the COLA and not just a small number of them.
QUESTION: You are a member of the Board of the Health Insurance Organization (HIO) representing PEO. How do you assess the progress of the National Health Scheme (NHS) to date, an achievement in which PEO has played a leading role? Does the NHS need improvement?
SC: PEO assisted the efforts for the implementation of the NHS and we attached a specific content to it, given that at the crucial time the government was flirting with the adoption of a multi-insurance NHS and regulations that clash with the philosophy of equal access to health care and social solidarity. Our Organisation, but also together with other trade unions, the Patients’ Organisation and other social organisations, stepped forward, mobilized our forces and insisted that all political forces should join forces to ensure that the character of the NHS won’t be changed.
We stepped forward in another sense too. PEO consciously, fully conscious of the importance the NHS has for society as a whole and supporting its implementation, knew from the very beginning that we would be led to the closure of an important service PEO had provided for working people, the Trade Union Clinics (ETKA), from which we had organisational and other benefits. But we did so consciously. In addition, we also backed its completion, and I recall that the decision was taken to implement the second phase of the NHS in the midst of an ongoing pandemic when things were very, very difficult.
For all these reasons I consider that we have every right to feel that we have made a decisive catalytic contribution to the fulfillment of this great achievement.
The NHS ensured the most essential thing, namely that everyone in need of health services would receive them without financial capacity being a criterion, as was the case before the introduction of the NHS.
Of course, the process of its implementation has also faced problems because the beginning of the implementation of the NHS came under fierce attacks launched by powerful interests affected by its implementation and because the pandemic of almost two years ago essentially brought about a major upheaval in the health system.
In addition, public hospitals were not being prepared as they should have been, nor were they properly strengthened and staffed to be able to support the NHS. Moreover, the NHS was being applied without the necessary scrutiny mechanisms in relation to the Health Insurance Organization so that it would be able to exercise control over abuses, nor were protocols established. All this made the situation more difficult.
Nevertheless, nothing can be taken away from the value of the implementation of the NHS and the many positives it has brought to our people. It goes without saying that in some areas it needs improvement and this is a big challenge for both the Health Insurance Organization and the social agencies who are involved in it. Our sincere concern is that that the NHS should retain its single-insurance character and apply the philosophy behind it.
We must therefore see what action we need to subsequently take. Clearly, new services need to be introduced into the system, such as long-term care services, more emergency departments and the custom of personal doctors on call. Improvements are also needed in medicines so that vulnerable groups and pensioners are not burdened with the purchase of medicines whose cost is not currently covered by the NHS. The phenomenon of abuses must also be controlled. We still need to see how the personal doctor will acquire a central role in this system. Of course, there is a need to push ahead and complete the autonomy of public hospitals so that they provide better services.
QUESTION: What do you think working people expect from the election of Sotiroula Charalambous to the leadership of PEO?
SC: What we do as an organization and as a leadership does not start and end with one person. PEO has never agreed with this philosophy, nor do I personally. PEO has a history spanning 80 years of struggle and throughout that history generations of militants have handed the baton of leadership to each other taking into account the needs and demands of each era. With the innovation that each change generates they have tried to build on what they found and add to it. This is how I believe working people see change in our Organization, namely as a constant struggle that has one overriding goal: The end result of all our struggles is to try to bring a better tomorrow for working people.
However, I do understand that any change raises some expectations bearing in mind the many big pending issues that lie ahead, the outcome of which will be decisive for what the situation of the people of labour will be in Cyprus. That is to say, whether we will put a brake on the process of deregulation and whether we will put a brake on this attack underway against the organisation of working people in trade unions that has been intensifying in recent years. I believe that this is precisely where working people’s expectations of PEO and its leadership are primarily focused on.
After the policy of an organized defence in our tactics we have adopted in the past years, the time has come for us to wage an organized and coordinated counter-offensive. What I believe workers expect is for PEO to continue to be what they know it to be, namely the Organization that is consistent, militant, to be even closer to working people, with new and fresh ways of approaching them, bearing in mind the changes that are taking place both in the field of work and in the composition of working people.
QUESTION: AKEL MP, Minister of Labour during the Demetris Christofias government, General Secretary of PEO. Which task do you consider as representing the greatest challenge?
SC: Each task has its own challenges. I don’t think they can be compared. As I said at the Congress after my election, it is a great honor to be entrusted with various tasks by the People’s Movement of the Left which I have served over the years. However, the position of General Secretary of PEO is for me the greatest honor because it is related to the Organisation that I have been active in since 1986. It is a place that I feel very much my own and very familiar.
Bearing in mind what we have to confront right now, clearly from this position of General Secretary I feel that I have a very great responsibility to working people who deserve a better life: the people who are next to our Organisation and participate in it, but also the people who are outside of it and listen, judge and have expectations of us. All these people are the ones who make me feel that I have a very great responsibility. But at the same time it also creates the feeling that in the face of this immense challenge, we must all with humility and sincerity give our all in our struggles.