Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Water strike deadlock as families face hardship

Humphrey’s suffer direct effects

The impact of the AquaGib pay dispute has been sharply felt by residents at the Alameda Estate, where 350 households have been without potable water since last Friday.

Yesterday, despite an informal meeting between union leaders and the company’s management, there was no end in sight to the strike. Five blocks of flats at Alameda Estate have been without running water since last week after a mains pipe in the area burst.

AquaGib has set up tap stations on the street from which residents can fill bottles, but the lack of running water at home is causing considerable hardship for those affected, particularly the elderly and families with young children.

Most residents were relying on relatives elsewhere in Gibraltar for necessities such as showers and laundry. But for the elderly, in particular some residents who are housebound, the problems were particularly acute.

With no indication yesterday that the necessary repairs to the network would be carried out and the water supply reconnected, there were mixed feelings on the ground toward the industrial action and the impact it was having on the estate. “I understand that each person wants what they believe they deserve, but you can’t hurt people like this,” said one man as he walked home carrying a five-litre bottle of water. “Water and light are sacred,” he added. The Alameda Tenants’ Association issued a statement urging both sides in the dispute to resume negotiations and find a solution to the row. “It would be totally inappropriate for us to apportion blame or suggest how the conflict should or could be resolved,” it said. “However, we feel we must publicly urge the two sides involved in this industrial dispute to avoid the temptation of using the general public as pawns in what might deteriorate into a war of attrition.”

The Government, which has so far avoided commenting on the dispute despite requests from the union for it to step in, broke its silence yesterday. “While it is not for Government to comment on the merits or otherwise of the claim by AquaGib employees, it is regrettable and unacceptable that residents of Alameda Estate have had to endure a lack of supply of potable water as a result of strike action,” said Fabian Vinet, Minister for Utilities. “Government takes a serious view of this and encourages both the company and the union to settle the dispute in a manner that is acceptable to all parties concerned, while ensuring that the general public is not inconvenienced as a result of strike action.” “Government hopes and expects that arrangements are put in place as a matter of urgency for the pertinent repairs to be undertaken in order to provide residents with this essential service,” the minister concluded. For the moment, however, that seems an unlikely prospect.

Yesterday’s meeting, described by AquaGib managing director Manuel Perez as “exploratory”, failed to achieve a breakthrough.

“At this stage, both sides would like to achieve a resolution, but it’s a question of seeing if we can,” he said. Our position on this is known but we’ve had no offer from the union.

Luis Montiel, district officer at the Transport and General Workers’ Union, also left little doubt of the gap between both parties. “We are in a deadlock,” he said. “The positions are too entrenched.”

The dispute centers on a claim from the workforce for back pay to make up the differentials between AquaGib employees and their equivalent grades in the Government. They are seeking payments dating back to August 2002. In a statement issued prior to yesterday’s meeting, the union reacted to a recent statement in which AquaGib’s management said it did not recognize any direct link between the company’s pay scales and the Government’s industrial pay scales.

The union statement described that position as “farcical, amazing and unfounded” and accused AquaGib management of breaching an agreement, dating back to 2001, with the then management of Lyonnaise Des Eaux (Gibraltar) Ltd and accepted by employees on January 15, 2002.

No date has been set for negotiations to resume, with the strike set to continue in the meantime. The union asked for the public’s understanding in this dispute and stressed that emergency services would not be affected by the industrial action.

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