Workers’ rights in the time of COVID-19 | Josef Bugeja

These are uncertain times for the employment sector. General Workers’ Union secretary JOSEF BUGEJA argues that, in view of the changing work environment, a proper legislative framework is needed to protect vulnerable workers

 Josef Bugeja
Josef Bugeja

COVID-19 has undeniably ushered in new realities for the labour market. As a union which represents workers - including some of the most vulnerable categories - are you concerned that this may give rise to more issues affecting workers’ rights?

Yes, I am. Let’s start with this: the pandemic has affected people’s lives at all levels: at home; at the workplace; in their social lives; even in the way we think. It has conditioned us, in many ways.

But the immediate effect was that consumption dropped drastically: not just in Malta, but everywhere. You could almost say it stopped altogether: aviation was ground to halt; hotels were closed… and this was necessary, because the immediate focus had to be medical: how to protect lives.

Over time, however, we began to try and adapt. Workplaces introduced safety precautions: social distancing measures, and so on. If an office employed 10 people, it would split them into two groups, working on different shifts: so that if there is an outbreak, only five out of the 10 would be quarantined. This way, the operation could at least continue.

But all this has had an effect. Working from home, for instance: it’s a good thing – a very good thing – in itself. In fact, I think the mistake we made was to associate the concept only with COVID-19.

However, there was enormous resistance to teleworking from employers: especially in the private sector. Because there are models and structures that have been in place for years: that you employ a foreman, or a supervisor, etc.

And however beneficial teleworking may be, it also disrupts those structures…

Are you suggesting that these new workplace models, imposed on us by COVID-19, are also threatening certain jobs that depend on the retention of more traditional structures?

Yes, there’s that too. But let’s take it one step at a time. The point is: we all had to adapt; but we adapted on the basis of necessity.  If companies introduced teleworking… it’s because they had to; and not, for instance, because it’s beneficial.

On top of all this, however: there’s the question of how companies assess work that is done from home.  From our perspective, as a union, the important thing is that the work is measured on the basis of efficiency, productivity, etc… and not on scrutinising the actions or movement of the worker.

Let me give you a practical example: recently I was talking to a member of ours, employed in the financial services sector; and every few seconds, he would move the mouse of the computer on his desk while talking.

When I asked why he kept doing that, he explained that his employers were monitoring his actions by keeping track of the movements of his mouse: to make sure that he was still working.

That does not make sense: for one thing, we need to monitor the work…not the person. But we also need to bear in mind that, if people work from home… it’s still their home. Employers cannot be so intrusive as to interfere with how people live in their own homes.

What we are proposing, then is that, if a person works from home, the work area – for instance, the desk – should be designated as an extension of the workplace. Because if I’m sitting at my desk at home, and (for argument’s sake), the chair breaks, I fall over, and hurt myself… does that qualify as an ‘injury on duty’? Or is it going to considered as grounds for sick-leave?

Conversely, if I go to the kitchen to make a coffee, slip and fall… that’s clearly not a ‘workplace injury’. That would be sick-leave.

To qualify as an ‘workplace injury’, that area must be an extension of the workplace. And that also means that the usual conditions of work – the benefits, responsibilities, etc. – also have to be extended to the home work environment.

Above all, however, there has to be reciprocal trust. Employees have to trust their employers not to be intrusive; but employers also have to trust the employees to do the necessary work.

This is why, among our proposals for Budget 2021, we asked for a strong, new legislative framework, that covers both remote work, and teleworking. There have to be established parameters, which are accepted and respected by everybody.

Have you encountered specific cases where COVID-19 was used as a pretext to restrict employees’ rights?

Let me answer you this way: when a contract is negotiated between an employer and an employee, there will be certain benefits and conditions attached. ‘This is your pay; this is your mobile-phone allowance; this is your petrol allowance’; and so on.

But now, with people working from home – and yes, we are encountering these cases – the employer might turn around and say: ‘Now that you’re not working from home, you’re not using your car as much. So… no more petrol allowance.’

But no: that’s not acceptable. What was negotiated was a complete package; it was agreed to, by both sides, and you just can’t change the terms at will. Besides: the employer’s fuel consumption might have gone down… but his electricity consumption will have gone up, because he’s always at home…

On the subject of ‘injury-’ and ‘sick leave’: COVID-19 has also greatly exacerbated certain mental health issues – e.g., anxiety – that can also impact the ability to work. Are these conditions also being catered for by the GWU’s proposals?

That is something else everyone has also had to adapt to. In the initial stages, there was the added stress and anxiety of the partial lockdown [between March and June]. At first, a lot people of people were demanding: ‘lockdown, lockdown, lockdown’. Today, however, it’s a different story.

Part of this has to do with teleworking itself. People who work from home, and also have children – at a time when schools were shut – found themselves facing enormous stress. They had to carry on attending to their work responsibilities, while also keeping an eye on the children… making sure they were following their lessons online, etc.

This is why I also believe that, if we are to introduce more permanent structures to cater for this new reality, it should be a hybrid system: whereby people work for a certain period from home, or remotely; but the rest, at the office.

People should not end up permanently confined to their own homes: because human nature is such that it depends of social interaction. Isolation has a serious impact on mental health; this is already being felt, and I think we will be seeing much more of it next year.

Since the pandemic, we have also witnessed the rise of new categories of workers: for instance, delivery companies (mostly in the catering sector) which act as an interface between the domestic demand, and restaurants and takeaways. Do those food-delivery motorcyclists, that we now see so often, enjoy the same benefits and conditions are more regulated sectors?

The situation with ‘platform workers’ – to use the technical term – is one of the reasons we insist on clear parameters binding both sides [employer and employees]. Because in their case… there aren’t ‘two sides’.

The restaurant hiring their services do not regard those people as ‘employees’. They simply ‘buy’ the service they provide: without any contractual obligations. Nor are they paid a salary; they take a commission on the sale.

But if we are going to remove the contractual relationship that exists between employer and employee… we will end up in a situation where there is no regulation or control at all…

Aren’t we already there, though? You said yourself that there are no ‘two sides’, in this equation…

Yes, you could say that. For instance: I spoke to a [platform-working] ‘taxi-driver’ – and I use the word loosely, as in reality he chauffeurs passengers in his own car - who showed us his accounts.

Now: I didn’t verify those accounts – so I’m taking them on trust – but: between the price of the car; the cost of fuel; wear and tear; insurance, etc… to earn €200, he has to work 100 hours. That’s how the situation has become…

Are these people unionised with GWU?

We have been approached, yes, but it’s still an ongoing process. And there are difficulties. For instance; in the food delivery sector, in particular, most of the workers – and we only have a vague idea of how many there actually are – are third-country nationals [non-EU].

This is not a problem for us: we will protect them all the same. But it does cause a problem, because – under the current system – third-country nationals cannot register as ‘self-employed’. The single-work permit system requires that you need to have an employer, who applies for the permit on your behalf.

So if a third country national delivers me a pizza: in practice, there is no doubt he is ‘self-employed’ – in the sense that no one’s employing him – but… how can he also be registered? The reality is that: he can’t.

This is why we are demanding a reform of legislation – both at local and European level – regulating the so-called ‘gig economy’. At present, the situation is that one person provides a service, and another pays for it… with an ‘app’ acting as an interlocutor between them.

We say ‘no’ to that. These people have to be regarded as ‘employees’, and be given all the protection, benefits and conditions that go with employment.

Moving onto a different – but related - topic: it is no secret that the GWU has had close historic ties with the Labour Party; and it is currently a policy of the Labour government to fuel economic growth through the importation of foreign (often TNC) workers. Meanwhile, government also objects to migration on the grounds that the country is ‘full-up’.  Are you yourself comfortable with that?

Let me be clear about this – and I’ve said this many times before – for us, any employee is equal. Race, gender, religious belief… none of that makes a difference to us. Be they third-country nationals, Europeans, Maltese… they all have to be treated the same.

But if there is something we need to work on more in this country, it is integration. Few people seem to understand this: many think it means that, for instance, we’d have to remove religious symbols from public places, and so on.

But no, it doesn’t mean that at all. It means mutual, reciprocal respect. And I think that the government is not doing enough to push forward that concept.

As for whether we are ‘full-up’ or not, however: if we are gong to talk about detention centres… the situation is, to be honest, deplorable. Maybe not so much at this precise moment, because of COVID-19; but the Armed Forces and Detention Services employees are also our members… and time and again, they have complained about being threatened, assaulted, having their cars set of fire... So the problem is there; it cannot be denied.

But in the country as a whole; that’s a different story. It is equally undeniable that foreign labour is required, to fill certain positions, and do certain jobs. Meanwhile, we talk (rightly) about ‘social mobility’: Maltese workers are seeking better jobs, better conditions, and moving up the employment ladder.

But those jobs they are leaving, still have to be done by somebody. So it is useless saying: ‘we need foreign workers… but not THOSE foreign workers’. It’s not a pick and choose situation…

But that is precisely what government is saying…

[Shrugs] I disagree. Because this ‘historic association’ you refer to: yes, it is true that in the past, the GWU was statutorily fused with the Labour Party. But in the 1990s, that association ended. And that was 30 years ago.

History is what it is, and can’t be erased. We don’t want to erase it, either. So yes, there was an association. But now, there isn’t.

Today, we have our own identity, as GWU. We have our own principles; our own values; and sometimes they are aligned with those of the PL… but sometimes, they are not.

Immigration is a case in point. On these issues, I am bound by the policies and statute of the GWU: and this means that all workers – regardless who they are, or where they come from – have to be treated the same.