The Malta Independent 20 October 2019, Sunday

INDEPTH: ‘A question of loss of credibility’ - UHM to launch investigation into ARMS billing system

Sunday, 29 April 2018, 09:15 Last update: about 2 years ago

Rachel Attard and Julian Bonnici

UHM Voice of the Workers has invited the public to submit samples of their electricity bills in order to launch an investigation into the way ARMS is billing its consumers, UHM Voice of the Workers CEO Josef Vella told The Malta Independent's online interview programme Indepth.

Vella said that besides the investigation, the union will be asking the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development (MCESD) to look further into the matter.

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"This is not a question of money, as there will be greater repercussions through the loss of credibility in the authority amongst citizens," he said.

"The government keeps on saying the bills are dropping, however, when people go and check their bills they see something different."

In the interview, Vella covered a number of issues pertaining to workers' rights, such as unemployment, the foreign workforce, pensions, and sick leave; it also addressed wider societal issues such as the debate on embryo freezing and the criticism tabled against the government.

The Malta Independent has written successive stories on the way ARMS is chopping up the cheap electricity quotas based on the number of days it is billing an account holder, meaning that individuals who receive bills more frequently, which cover a shorter billing period, are extremely likely to be charged at higher rates or losing out on cheap units.

Economist Marie Briguglio, who recently sounded the alarm on this practice, took to social media to describe in the most simple of terms how this issue is affecting consumers who are billed frequently and have spikes and drops in their consumption.

"Jack and Jill both consume 6,000 electricity units per year in the island of Jalta. Jill consumes 500 units a month, every month. Jack consumes 3,000 units in July and 3000 in August and no more units during the year.

"In Jalta, both Jack and Jill are entitled to a quota of 2000 units at 10c5, and 4000 units at 12c9. Their bill should total €730. But Jalta's billing company JARMS decides to bill them every two months. It rations their quota to 333 units at 10c5 and 666 at 12c9 [based on the number of days their bill covers]. The rest will be billable at 16c1 34c2 and 60c8.

"Jill will still pay €730 and think nothing of it. But Jack, on the other hand, will pay €2,419 for the exact same units of electricity, simply because of the billing period. At the end of the year, Jack went to JARMS to ask for €1,690 to be refunded to him.

"To be continued..."

 

Unemployment and foreign workers

While noting that unemployment was low, he said that it was not the "be all and end all" of the situation in the workforce, and questioned why a majority of plum jobs are being taken up by foreigners rather than locals.

"The blame is not on any one institution or person; it is on all of us. Does our population have the tools to go for these jobs? The statistics include early school leavers and educational standards that are below the EU average, which is a failure on the country's part. I have tried to speak to the government about this issue but I did not get any replies.

"We need to make sure our population is served before looking for a foreign workforce to fill up the necessary posts."

He urged the introduction of a national plan in transitioning education to high-quality employment, suggesting the separation of the Ministry for Education and Employment to provide better focus on each area.

With regard to foreign workers who are paid significantly lower than their Maltese counterparts are, he said that while there are sectors that are protected and granted the same conditions as local workers in union protected industries, the same could not be applied to others that were not, namely the hospitality and restaurant sector.

"Trade unions are silenced in this industry. There is so much abuse given the low salaries and working conditions that locals have stopped working in the industry, despite the booming tourism economy," he said.

"We are not talking about small places, but posh restaurants that offer a first class service yet still fail to improve their workers' conditions."

He conceded that more work needs to be done by the union to reach such employees, lamenting the huge lobbying power the employers' union has when compared to the trade unions.

 

The property market

Increases in the property market have also become a serious concern for a number of Maltese workers. Asked about the issue, Vella revealed that MCESD is discussing the matter. He said that the increase in prices, particularly in the rental market, have been catered towards certain sectors with higher earning foreign employees, while others simply could not meet the demand.

He stressed the need to introduce regulation through a national housing policy that addresses the fact that low-income earners, along with young workers, are finding it increasingly difficult to rent an apartment, let alone purchase a property.

"We are not talking about people struggling to buy or rent a villa but a simple apartment," he said.

"We need to examine what the average person is able to pay each month and whether there is any space in the market for this person. I can understand an owner wishing to make more money on his property, which is why the responsibility should fall on the government to create a national policy on the issue."

Sick leave

The Malta Employers' Association recently flagged issues concerning sick leave abuse during the debate to grant extra days off to employees when public holidays fall on a weekend. Vella was dismissive of government intervention in this regard, saying that it was up to each individual employer to ensure abuse does not take place.

"We are not saying that everyone is an angel and there is no abuse, but the proper management of sick leave needs to start from the office itself. There are companies with proper management procedures to ensure that abuse does not take place," he said.

 

Pensions

With regard to pensions, Vella suggested that the government should ring-fence the first pension pillar and focus on introducing the second pillar when asked whether he agreed with the first pillar. The second pillar refers to an occupational pension.

"Between the first and third pillars we should have the second, but somehow this does no longer exist.

"What will happen if the 40,000 foreigners leave? We will be in a situation where we would have more elderly people than workers and will be unable to continue to support pensions."

Asked on whether greater initiatives should be made to allow private companies to offer a private pension plan to their employees, Vella was interested in the idea, jokingly saying that "we've had more discussions on the subject over here than I have had with the government."

IVF

Vella also asked what he thought of the recent debate on IVF and embryo freezing, to which he said that he believes the decision, which is a sensitive issue, should be done with the approval of a majority of the electorate. Turning to the proposal for altruistic adoption of un-used embryos, Vella expressed concerns over the idea, especially given the millions of orphans around the world who are yet to find a home.

Protests and resignations

Vella still maintained that he believed both the Police Commissioner and Attorney General should resign, explaining that he had the support from his union and had discussed the issue with the executive committee to attend the protest last October, following the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

He stressed the need for accountability and asserted that his union was more than an organisation which simply looked out for their own workers.

"We are a union that has the nation's interests at heart. The thing is that I see many workers who make one mistake and face disciplinary action, even from the police. If there was some accountability, we would have praised the government for taking the initiative."

Photos by Martin Dimech


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