Speech by AKEL MP Giorgos Koukoumas in the debate on the 2023 State Budget
7 December 2022, House of Representatives
In sixty days we will reach the end of the Anastasiades government and, if the people so choose, the end of the DISY government in general. Today we are discussing the Budget and taking stock.
Of all that could be said about what has happened in the country over the last decade, there is one figure from statistical data that I believe is the most representative and revealing. Namely, that over the last 10 years, working people’s wages as a percentage of the country’s GDP have fallen by 5% while business profits have risen by 7%.
These percentages represent billions of euros and reveal a huge shift of wealth that has taken place in Cyprus over the last decade from the middle and lower strata of society to the upper strata. More specifically, if one takes into account that – while the government is celebrating a growth rate of 5% – half of the country’s working people are paid less than 1,500 euros and one quarter below 1,000 euros, it is confirmed that, despite what is being said, not everyone is the same – the rich and the popular strata. On the contrary, both in times of crisis and in times where growth is being recorded, certain people reap the wealth and others share what is left of the feast.
Above all, however, these figures capture the reality the majority of society is experiencing. It encapsulates the lives of tens of thousands of working people who are now forced to cut expenses from everywhere to make it through the month, who are literally afraid to open their electricity bills, who are struggling to educate their children and pay their bank payments. This is the reality thousands of working people face in different workplaces, companies and sectors, but who face the same exploitation and the depreciation of the employers, even when the employer is the state itself.
Take for example the thousands of teachers employed in the Ministry of Education’s all-day and evening programmes who were forced by the government into the purchase of services regime, and for that reason have consequently lost 1/3 of their incomes overnight.
- It is the resident doctors in public hospitals – people who carry on their shoulders the present and future of our country’s public health sector – who had to go on strike last month to make it clear that they cannot be forced to work for 32 or more hours straight and in shifts for just 3 euros an hour.
- There are cases such as that of the 150 workers at the Ioannou and Paraskevaides company in Saudi Arabia who have been struggling for four years to be paid years of accrued wages and even their contributions to social security and welfare funds that the company has been withholding for years but were never paid. We are talking about the same company that twice refused to attend the Parliamentary Labour Affairs Committee where it was invited to discuss the issue on the initiative taken by AKEL. The same big businessmen who the day before yesterday proposed to compensate workers with the humiliating sum of EUR 600 to write off three and four years’ of working people’s wages. In other words, this flagship of the Cypriot business class, the colossus of the construction industry, which is a global giant, is stealing workers’ wages with one hat and with the other hat – the same people – are being awarded the title of “Businessman of the Year” and considered a national benefactor. This is how dynasties are built, this is how the notorious growth is crowned.
While we hear these realities when meeting people, when we hear about the rent issue, meagre wages and pensions, the ruling DISY party and the Anastasiades government insist that the country is doing exceptionally well. “It has never been in a better shape” as the President of DISY told us yesterday. Someone will say that we cannot both be right. And yet. We are both right. Because we are talking to and asking different people.
- If you ask the President’s son-in-law, for example, he will tell you that the construction industry is doing exceptionally well. But if you ask a construction worker, he’ll tell you about wages that are even below 2013 levels, about big contractors who are violating the collective bargaining agreements they themselves signed, even by those who take on public works projects.
- If you ask DISY full-time officials who joined the Presidential Office as assistants and the government sought to give them a permanent employment status through the back door in the public sector, they will tell you that they find labour relations in our country excellent. If you ask the thousands of public sector workers who work under a purchase of services regime – instead of a permanent, full-time job – you will hear what it means to have to pay for petrol to get to work.
- If again you ask a banker, he will tell you that he is happy that DISY organised the closure of the Cyprus Co-operative Bank for the banks to fest. Or if you again ask the CEO of the Bank of Cyprus, who is paid EUR 745, 000 a year, he will tell you – as he told us just two weeks ago – that he does not understand why there is a need for a moratorium on foreclosures. But if you ask a borrower or any citizen, he/she will tell you about the banks that charge you for the air you breathe as soon as you enter the branch, and others will tell you about the risk of being forced out and evicted because the banks were overcharging them illegally and the government on top of that passed legislation to keep the arbitrariness of the banks unchecked.
In the face of this policy, there is another alternative, which meets the demands and needs of the people, of society. Demands that the Left puts forward, both inside and outside Parliament. Demands that can only be found in Andreas Mavroyiannis’ programme of governance.
Demands such as the full restoration of the Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) and its expansion to cover all private sector workers, because otherwise how else will the income of working people and households, which is being eroded by the high cost of living and price increases, be protected today?
Demands such as changing the minimum wage decided by the government, which is not only inadequate. It is structured in such a way that although it raises a portion of wages by 40-50 euros, at the same time it pushes all other wages down. No one from the government has answered why it was not specified how many hours the minimum wage in the decree corresponds to? 40? 48? How many hours? This artful omission will lead to one thing: a surge in unpaid overtime for thousands of workers. The 8 hours that became 10 hours, 12 hours and so on will now have the government’s stamp of approval.
Demands such as the regulation of teleworking. Given that the government’s backtracking from submitting a bill on telework – succumbing here too to the employers’ demands – is not innocent, since so long as it is delaying in doing so new forms of exploitation of workers in the private sector, and indeed of highly skilled and educated workers as well, are being promoted. Without a strict framework, instead of everyone benefiting from technological progress and the flexibility of teleworking, what really is taking place is that thousands of working people end up working from home but without fixed working hours, constantly online and always “on call” to answer phones, emails and take on work. Employers are demanding working people to work on weekends, evenings and even on holiday, with the excuse that “you are at home anyway” thus blurring the boundaries between free time and working time.
Labour rights are not separate, but are absolutely intertwined with social policy and all other human rights.
- But how inadequate is the government’s understanding of social policy when, for parental leave – which it did not choose to introduce, but was forced to do so by a European directive and even delayed in complying – it excluded self-employed people, leaving them with commitments for the future? Do self-employed people not have the same needs as parents? Do self-employed people not contribute to social insurance?
- How did the government find over these years 80 million euros to increase the funding of the Archdiocese’s fund, how could it give away hundreds of millions of euros in VAT to the ‘golden’ passport scoundrels, but not find the minimum needed to restore the benefits of all disabled children or to solve the problem of school carers for disabled children?
- What kind of welfare state is DISY President Averof Neofytou talking about when we live in a state where the government cuts off the single-parent allowance – in the range of EUR 160 to 180 – from mothers who raise their children alone when they live with another man? How much class insensitivity and conservatism against women – given that 9 out of 10 single-parent families are headed by the mother – is needed for the state to exhaust its strictness on single parents, 50% of whom are in poverty? What more does it take for the government to accept the AKEL’s draft Bill abolishing this anachronistic provision to the detriment of single parents?
- What does the government consider to be the human rights of LGBTI people? Homophobia is not only the racist toxic discourse of well-known notorious Neanderthals. Homophobia is also the structural refusal by the state and government to enforce hate speech laws, to correct laws that perpetuate discrimination, to criminalise extreme forms of abuse as AKEL proposes for pseudo conversion therapies. It is ultimately a refusal to envision a society of freedom, equality and solidarity.
The positive thing about the latest Budget of the DISY government is that it may be its last one. Things speak for themselves.
On the one hand, Andreas Mavroyiannis has the Left and personalities from all the democratic and progressive spectrum on his side.
On the other hand, two DISY candidates [A.Neofytou and N. Christodoulides] are fighting over who is more DISY than the other, to win the votes of the DISY electorate and continue the government of DISY.
However, the presidential elections are not held to solve personal differences – yes personal, given that politically they do not have, and neither have they ever told us, of having any differences – between Averof Neofytou and Nikos Christodoulides, or to solve the question of ownership of power in the in-fighting of the Right.
The elections are held to choose which course we want for the country, for the people.
- Whether we want a President who will discredit the citizens of our country all over the world for his scandals, or a President who will make Cypriots proud – both those who voted for him and those who will not – but also confident that he serves his country and not his family business.
- Whether we want a new President who will set in motion a social, progressive programme of governance that focuses on the needs of the many, or whether we want a government for the bankers, big businessmen and media moguls.
- Whether we want a President who worships Grivas and NATO, or a President for Cypriots and all Cypriots. For Cyprus, all Cyprus and only Cyprus.
- Whether we want in the end – and this is the question of the presidential elections: A third term for DISY or a change of government and a new beginning. A new beginning for the country. A new beginning for the people.
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