Wednesday, February 16, 2005

MoD Privatisation Plans a blow to Gibraltar economy

The stage is set for a bitter confrontation between trade unions and the Ministry of Defence over plans to privatise 300 jobs in Gibraltar.

Union leaders spoke of “betrayal” yesterday and insisted that the proposal would have damaging repercussions on the Rock’s economy as a whole. While British Forces Gibraltar confirmed plans to privatize “a number” of civilian jobs, details of the move remain vague.

Yet in a clear sign of the seriousness of the matter, Susan Scholefield, command secretary at Permanent Joint Head Quarters [PJHQ] in the UK, will be in Gibraltar today to brief officials on the proposal.

Ms Scholefield, who is a senior establishment figure responsible for policy decisions in all countries and areas where the MoD operates, is also likely to attend a meeting today between union representatives and Commodore Alan Adair, Commander British Forces.

The encounter will prove tense. At an emotional press conference yesterday, representatives of the Transport and General Workers’ Union/ACTS and Prospect (GGCA Branch) left little doubt as to the strength of feeling in the workforce.

The Ministry of Defence in Gibraltar wants to wash their hands of direct employment, which is the only contribution of significance that they make to Gibraltar,” said Luis Montiel, district officer of the TGWU/ACTS.

It is the only contribution that Ministry of Defence makes to have a naval base in Gibraltar and sustain us through all the problems that we have to endure, such as the question of the submarine repairs and so on.

We’re not going to sit back and accept all the negative parts while they have here a little cushy number for a few military personnel to do what they want. We will play ball, provided that [the MoD] play ball with us. But now, I’m afraid they’ve changed the goal posts in a very bad way.

The unions claimed to have received past assurances from British defence minister Geoff Hoon that the UK had no “ideological commitment” to contractorisation, the military term for privatisation. Their understanding had been that the MoD was open to working in partnership with the unions to achieve the necessary cost efficiencies through non-traumatic measures that would maintain in-house employment of workers. They see the latest development as a complete U-turn or, as Mr Montiel put it, “a betrayal.”

"The trade unions will not take this dramatic change of policy lightly,” he told reporters yesterday. “We will oppose all attempts to contractorise the present functions that are done on the basis of direct employment and we will take action as and when we consider it appropriate.”

No Details

The MoD yesterday declined to go into any detail on the latest proposal, stressing that there were “proper procedures” that had to be maintained. In a statement, British Forces Gibraltar regretted the fact that some details of the MoD plan had been released.

“Our priority is to deal with the workforce and have a debate with them, rather than deal with them through the media,” Ken Johnston, deputy head of media at PJHQ, told the Chronicle.

"The primary emphasis in all our dealings is with the most important thing we have, and that is our people and our commitment to Gibraltar,” added Mr Johnston, who is currently on the Rock. Union leaders were at pains yesterday to stress that the latest move by the MoD would, in their view, go far beyond the direct impact on the jobs of the civilian MoD workers and their families. While contractorisation would in theory lead to an increase of locally available jobs in the private sector, they are fearful that those vacancies would not go to local people.

Mr Montiel spoke about “the nepotism that exists in these so-called contract companies.” “Local people are hardly given a chance, regardless of their qualifications, to get employed,” he said. “They continue to bring in their people and they never give the opportunities to locally educated people from Gibraltar.”

There were also concerns that, in the long term, MoD restructuring and cost-cutting would affect a far larger number of jobs than the 300 impacted by the latest proposal.

Michael Tampin, Gibraltar branch secretary of Prospect (GGCA Branch), put the development into the broader context of the employment shake-up at the MoD and echoed Mr Montiel’s sense of betrayal. “We have to understand that there is a global picture here and 40,000 [jobs] are going in the UK,” Mr Tampin said. “We always knew that there may be an impact locally because of the global picture. What we’ve tried to do is, rather than contractorisation and privatization, is to do it in Gibraltar by in-house bids. Those were the assurances that had been given to us.”

Under the earlier so-called Pegasus process, unions engaged with the MoD in a partnership agreement that was intended to safeguard in-house jobs, though some job losses through natural wastage were anticipated. No figures were ever mentioned, although at the time it was speculated that they would not be very significant.
If you couple that earlier process to the latest development, union leaders believe that there is potential for up to 60% of the present MoD workforce – about 600 jobs in total – to be affected in some way or other.

In the long term, it could impact on up to 60% [of the workforce], though we mustn’t get confused that this necessarily means a loss of 600 jobs at this stage,” Mr Tampin said.

Yesterday, there was no indication of what sort of action the unions might take in response to the MoD proposal. Their first step is to meet with British officials today for a briefing on the detail of the plan, after which they will meet their membership to discuss the way forward.

"We have a strategy for action but we do not reveal our hand,” Mr Montiel said.

We’ve got experience in dealing with the Ministry of Defence and we know that they are also very well organized. When we talk about action, we decide when and how we are going to act.

Figures provided by the union leaders leave little doubt as to the high stakes involved. The MoD directly employs around 1000 civilian employees in Gibraltar and provides well-paid jobs with solid pensions that secure a good future for its workers. Taking in the knock-on beneficial effects on other local businesses, it accounts for around 7% of the economy according to the unions.

The impact of this is not just on Mod employees,” said Mr Tampin. “There is a much bigger impact on the economy of Gibraltar. That’s the message that must be got across.

The Government of Gibraltar, which issued a statement on the MoD proposal on Monday, made no further comment yesterday. Chief Minister Peter Caruana has indicated that the government is firmly opposed to contractorisation and the ‘exportation’, directly or indirectly, of local jobs.

The opposition GSLP/Libs alliance expressed similar sentiments yesterday. The opposition has made clear to the unions that "we will support any action they take for the purposes of avoiding job losses,” said shadow Minister for Employment Fabian Picardo.

“We are currently seeking to establish the detail of the proposed changes so that we can evaluate the most effective way to react.”


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