As to date there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 here in Malta. So far, so good. However, with reports of new cases cropping up all over the continent and beyond, every single hour of the day, it seems as if it’s only a matter of time until this relatively new virus will rear its ugly head here. At the cost of sounding like a doomsayer, it would however, be fair to say that at this point in time it is a case of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ this will happen.
The Ministry of Health is doing a sterling job in updating the general public with developments as the situation unfolds. In the past few days, it has expanded its surveillance of the coronavirus to include the Northern part of Italy and six other areas, requesting individuals returning from these areas to self-quarantine for 14 days.
While this is highly commendable, the implications, though not immediately apparent, are far-reaching, with the conditions of an imposed self-quarantine still unclear as to how they will ultimately impact employers and employees alike. While the government has issued a directive setting out how employees within the public service will be paid during this self-quarantine, the situation for the private sector remains murky at best.
We spoke to Josef Bugeja, Secretary General of the GWU, on the union’s position regarding this developing situation. “The Government has issued a circular for Public Service employees, which covers self-quarantine with special paid leave, for all those who have travelled to countries assigned as a ‘hotspot’, until the 28th of February. As from the 29th, this concession is no longer active and employees requested to travel for work to these areas, can refuse such requests. On our part, we have a substantial number of collective agreements, both with private and public entities which cover for such situations, where employees need to be quarantined.
“However, for those entities which are not covered by this clause in their collective agreement, as a union we are calling for a Government-led fund, discussions for which are under way, which will cover employees in instances of a required self-quarantine. That said, a sense of goodwill is already evident by companies which have no such measures in place; companies which are determined to offer viable solutions such as teleworking,” Mr Bugeja said.
Mr Bugeja continued, “I believe that both employers and employees understand the urgency of the situation, if we are to avoid a national emergency. Realistically, no employee can afford to forgo a fortnight’s pay, even more so if one is tied up with monthly commitments like mortgages or loans. We all have to strive to find solutions to avoid instances where an individual, who is required to stay at home but simply can’t afford to, still goes to work regardless of whether he or she is fit to do so. I believe we can all agree that the consequences emanating from that kind of scenario would be catastrophical for the country as whole.”
We also asked Mr Joseph Farrugia, Director General of the Malta Employers’ Association for his views and the association’s position on the matter, which in a local scenario is admittedly, unprecedented.
“Currently, there is no specific direction on how to tackle the matter, as labour legislation is not designed to deal with such abnormal situations. In fact, similar problems are arising even in other EU countries,” Mr Farrugia said.
“There are contacts between the social partners to establish a solution and to formulate clear directives on how the self-quarantine will be treated. It is expected that such criteria will be established in the coming week. MEA’s position is that health and safety at the workplace is paramount, and that the health authorities are duty bound to issue guidelines to safeguard workplaces and the general population from the spread of the virus, should it manifest itself in Malta. However, such guidelines need to be more specific in terms of their impact on working conditions and cost or employment. Our view is that the employer should not be burdened with the cost of self-quarantine, unless the travel is work related,” he added.
As stated earlier, this is an unprecedented situation for our country and therefore at this juncture it would be prudent to consider and prepare for a worst-case scenario; not only where health services are concerned, but also how this will affect the practical aspects of everyday life of every Maltese and foreigner currently living in the country. This is not to induce panic but would serve for every citizen to be fully informed of the implications of such a situation and the options available to them. Therefore, full disclosure of the situation and practical guidelines from the relevant authorities are the only viable way forward.