‘I regret nothing – I was defending workers’
TONY ZARB, general secretary of the General Workers’ Union, tells Christian Peregin he regrets nothing he said in the tapes published by the Nationalist Party this week.
Where and when did the conversation in question take place?
Many think it was last week but it was actually in June last year, at a restaurant in Marsascala.
Who was present?
Me, (GWU former assistant general secretary) Geitu Mercieca, who was the mediator, (businessman) Duminku Gafà and Michael Ferry, a consultant to Mr Gafà.
What was the context of your meeting?
We, as General Workers’ Union, had written stories in L-Orizzont and Torċa about the conditions of Mr Gafà’s workers. We wanted to speak to him and this was an opportunity to try and fix the workers’ conditions.
Who set up the meeting?
Geitu Mercieca asked me if we should meet up to find a way forward. He organised the meeting.
Did you know the meeting would be recorded?
I can assure you I did not and that is why I am hurt. This is a betrayal. And I can definitely say it was not me or Mr Mercieca who recorded it. That leaves two people: Mr Ferry and Mr Gafà.
What is your relationship with these people?
I knew Mr Ferry as secretary of the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development and I have known Mr Gafà ever since he was a worker at Air Malta. I had some encounters with him about the conditions of his workers. He was making a big effort to make sure they were not organised in the GWU.
Do you think this meeting was a trap?
Yes, I think this was all planned so things are said with the intention of being made public.
Did you hear the full recording?
No and I would be happy to do so because it would be clear that a substantial part of this two-hour long meeting was about working conditions. We said we wanted a collective agreement and agreed to draft one.
You said that Mr Gafà’s company had a history of precarious employment.
And I can supply proof.
How many times did you file reports with the authorities?
We complained with the Director of Labour and have at least seven cases in court. Here I have proof of irregularities... it is good to point out that the GWU was the first to talk about precarious employment.
The first time was at the Workers’ Monument in Msida where I said people were employing foreigners and then filing police reports once the work was almost finished so the police would apprehend those working illegally and remove them.
Since I made that declaration, my life did not remain the same. There are many threats on my life.
In the recording you say that a good relationship with the union helps you with tenders.
I don’t say it will help you with tenders. The union...
The mediator says: “I told him (the contractor) if you have a good relationship it helps you even with tenders and we can give you a push when they are issued.” You say: “If things change, even more so.” How does the GWU help with tenders?
By giving a company a good reference.
Are you saying tendering boards ask for a reference from unions?
I’m not mentioning tendering boards. My job is not to issue tenders...
Do you have access to such boards?
I have no access and I never had any access to any tendering board.
So where do you make such a recommendation?
If a firm asks me for a reference...
Through a reference letter, for example?
Yes. If we have a good relationship and workers are given good conditions, I will write a reference letter for those who ask for one.
Are companies asked for reference letters during a tendering process?
I’m not saying they are asked for them. But when companies asked us for a reference, we did not hesitate to give them one if we had a good relationship with the management and there were good working conditions. If they use that reference for the tendering process, it is up to the management to decide.
Then why is it that you can help “even more” under a Labour government?
Because the Labour Party had long taken a position against precarious employment. God forbid Labour does not keep its word.
But that does not mean you help with a tender, it means the company would be in a better position because it would not be blacklisted.
If the working conditions did not change, it would be difficult for him (Mr Gafà) to win tenders under a Labour government because Labour had long declared it would not allow precarious employment.
If a tender is issued and all companies are model employers, whom would you push?
No one... I wouldn’t mind who wins. We push model employers. We don’t give a push in awarding tenders. I am not involved in any way in that process and I will never be.
You are saying the GWU has issued recommendation letters as references. Can you prove this?
If someone asked me for a recommendation, and we have a good relationship, I will give it...
So this has happened?
We’ve often spoken too.
But have you sent letters?
I can mention one case regarding a security tender. We spoke directly to Minister Chris Said. This is because it is not fair that those companies whose workers are organised in a union and have good conditions are disadvantaged because other companies do not have the same conditions.
This is important because if you can produce letters where you recommended companies as model employers in the tendering process you will be able to prove that this was the only way the GWU pushed a company.
Many times, instead of letters, we spoke to the Government directly. We spoke to ministers directly.
Do you mean recommendations by word of mouth?
By word of mouth, yes.
Whom would you speak to?
Finance Minister Tonio Fenech?
Minister Said about security, for example. I remember long discussions with former minister John Dalli too.
Do you call? What do you tell them?
That we have good relations with the company vis-a-vis the workers.
Is there no other way that you or the GWU ever helped a company get a tender?
I can assure you I never did. That was deliberate spin.
Looking back, do you regret anything you said in the recording?
There is nothing I regret. What I did was a continuation of the GWU’s campaign against precarious jobs.
You have no regrets.
No, no regrets. And I will give you proof of the kind of precarious work we were fighting, even with regard to Mr Gafà.
In the recording you say clearly that if the members are unionised, the stories on L-Orizzont would stop. Isn’t this blackmail or bullying?
Not bullying at all. Why did I make that statement? Because if there are good conditions for workers and we have a good relationship with management we would not need to use our newspaper to expose abuse.
But that’s not what you said. You did not say that if the company employed workers fairly it would not be attacked. You said articles would not be published any longer if the workers joined the union. You’re using your newspaper to enrol more members.
No, I am using my newspaper to reduce abusive employment. We had many stories about this person in our newspaper.
I said that if you have members organised in a union and we had a collective agreement, we would not need to use the newspaper to expose bad practices.
Don’t you think this recording ruined your reputation and therefore you should resign?
I never had so many calls of support than I had in these last days from members of the council, secretaries and people encouraging me to continue.
If I stop, what will happen? Those who want precarious employment would have gotten rid of someone fighting against it.
Are you convinced you have the backing of the entire GWU?
More than convinced.
Don’t you think that if you step down you will have a chance to fight the accusations without taking down the GWU with you?
That you have some way of helping companies win tenders, more so if there is a Labour government. And that you are using your newspapers to force companies to enrol their workers in your union.
Based on the comments I received from so many people over the last two days, especially after the Prime Minister’s declaration,I am sure, more than ever, that I have more to give to the GWU, especially in this fight against precarious work.
If you see that this issue has an impact on the election campaign, a negative effect on Labour Party, would you feel bad?
This issue should in no way be connected with the election. This is a trade union issue and should remain so.
What sort of discussions have you had with Labour since the recording was published?
Haven’t you spoken to Labour leader Joseph Muscat?
And no Labour officials?
If the full recording is published and Dr Muscat says you should resign, would you?
No, Dr Muscat must take a stand in the party and we will take a stand in the GWU.
Wouldn’t Labour’s decision affect you?
Is there anyone who can persuade you to resign?
Yes. I have a council, I have a general conference made up of delegates. If they say I should resign I must bow my head to that decision.
How do you describe the GWU’s relationship with Labour?
A normal relationship.
A normal relationship between a union and. a political party?
Not any closer than that?
I assure you that that is not the case. The GWU took positions against certain decisions taken under a Labour government and will continue to do so even in the eventuality of another Labour government.