The Malta Independent 21 May 2022, Saturday

Workers’ Day should serve as a day for reflection – MEA, GWU

Sabrina Zammit Sunday, 1 May 2022, 08:00 Last update: about 20 days ago

International Workers’ day, which occurs on 1 May every year, is celebrated in over 80 countries around the world.

Although it has been remembered on a yearly basis since its first European celebration in 1890, its scope hasn’t changed; that of commemorating the achievements of the labour movement.

Over the years, workers’ conditions improved and some today question the significance of such a celebration.

The Malta Independent on Sunday spoke to the General Workers’ Union secretary general Josef Bugeja and Malta Employers’ Association director general Joseph Farrugia, to discuss the relevance of Workers Day in today’s world, together with how the labour market has improved over the years and what needs to be done for it to progress further.

Bugeja holds that Workers’ Day is still relevant today, not only as a remembrance of what and how workers managed to get their rights, but it should also serve as a day of reflection to envision where they are headed and how they should advance.

“The world of work is constantly transforming and so are the principles which have been in place since the beginning of the industrial revolution between workers and employers, as they tried to improve their work environment and remuneration,” he said.

Today, one question that is creating debate is the right to disconnect. With today’s technology, it is easy for workers to remain hooked to their job even when they are away from the office and supposedly during their free time.

Bugeja said that although this right was approved by a huge majority in the European Parliament, the concept has not been introduced locally. Both employers’ associations and trade unions agree on this principle as when employees are constantly expected to answer emails and calls outside of office hours, they are more prone to experience burnout.

He added that despite there being a general agreement, employers’ associations are reluctant to agree on the parameters within which this right should be practiced and have expressed a preference to wait for a European directive.

“As the GWU we are saying that we should benefit from our small scale and the kind of social dialogue that is present in Malta as this not only allows us to become practical in implementing new measures, but we have the opportunity to lead by example,” he said.

Defining what is being meant by these parameters, Bugeja said that this depends on the level of responsibilities a work position carries.

He added that the already very thin line between work and personal life is becoming more blurred as “it sometimes becomes natural for an employee to respond to emails outside of established work hours as they want to know what happened”, and therefore the GWU is advocating more than ever for this right to be transposed into Maltese law.

Bugeja said that in the coming weeks it is expected that a type of legal framework is published on the matter by the European Union.

The union also believes that the principal of “equal pay for jobs of equal value” should be widened to work organisations and not just the same employer.

Bugeja said that in the last budget, the union had proposed that Sundays should also be paid at a double rate for sub-contractors’ workers who are engaged to work in the public service and public sector. Government had accepted this proposal and adopted it from the beginning of this year.

“Now we want this measure also introduced in the private sector to cover all sub-contractors’ employees,” he said.

“Apart from these we are awaiting the final position on the transposition of the Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions Directive and the work-life balance directive. We also need to start discussing digitalisation, the greening of our economy, platform workers and better regulations for teleworking and remote working,” he said.

He said that at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic the union had come face to face with several workers who were not members of any union, who endured inhumane experiences such as being terminated via SMS.

He added that the union proposed to all political parties, prior to the election, for mandatory membership to a trade union of their choice. Bugeja said that this proposal was not intended to increase its members, but rather to decrease abuse of employees and improve their work environment.

Referring to a survey conducted by the Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society, he said it was discovered that around 10% of all workers are not allowed by their employers to become members of a trade union, even given that the right to be an associate with whoever they want is within the Constitution.

Bugeja said that although he strongly believes that all employees should enjoy the same rights and benefits in the same working organisations, it is not fair on paying members who put their effort and pay their fee while non-members still receive and enjoy the same benefits for free.

“We are saying that these free riders, who are also benefitting from our work, should also become members,” he said.

He added that working organisations which are not organised with a trade union should pay a small fee, for a fund to be created, from which trade unions and workers alike could benefit from by creating training sessions and carrying out studies to improve the work experience in general.

He added that although many have criticized this idea by saying that it goes against what the international labour organisation (ILO) recommends, it is not true as they are not proposing for workers to become members of a specific trade union by force but rather to choose one of their own.

The MEA director general said that forcing workers to become members of a union goes against the Maltese Constitution, the European Court of Human Rights, as well as ILO conventions.

Despite this, he added that he finds no harm in employees joining a trade union, as long as this is a choice made freely by the individual which should not in any way be obstructed by the employer. The same applies also to companies in their decision whether to join an employers’ association.

Asked whether or not Workers’ Day is still relevant in today’s world, he said that this celebration should occur as “it makes us reflect on the world of work”.

Speaking about the right to disconnect he said that it is reasonable to expect an employee to disconnect from work outside working hours. However, this has to be seen within the context of type of job performed, the distribution of hours, as well as provisions in cases of force majeure situations.

He added that the application of this right has to factor in situations whereby workplaces offer flexible hours, which means that employees may also have to be available outside the standard working times. Therefore, it should not be implemented in a manner that hinders flexible working hours’ agreements which are often requested by employees themselves.

Farrugia said that if the right to disconnect becomes a directive, it should protect employees from possible abuses, but it also needs to ensure that it does not disrupt present work flexibilities as “it would work against rather than in favour of the worker”.

Farrugia said that there should always be mutual respect between employees and employers, as once this balance is tipped “both parties suffer”. He said that employees should always be given decent and fair working conditions. In a tight labour market such as the one currently prevailing in Malta and also in other industrialised countries, businesses need to compete to attract the best people to work for them and thus exploitation is often short-sighted and counterproductive.

Asked to comment on how workers’ rights have improved in the last 20 years he said that in comparison, today’s labour market is more regulated thanks to European directives and local legislation which forces employers to meet certain work conditions by law. He added that such legislation also needs to be enforced for it to be effective.

“The fact that Malta forms part of the European Union means that labour regulations are among the most dignified in the world,” he said.

He said that over the years Malta has developed a social dialogue system based on mutual respect between workers and employers.  Although there are incidences of abuse by both sides, these are not the norm. Most workers give a decent day’s work and employers in general look after their employees.

He added that the MEA’s main mission is to participate in dialogue with unions to “always try and find the best solution for both parties”.

Farrugia said that Malta has developed industrial relations which are quite stable when compared to other countries, which also makes solving problems much easier.

Asked regarding future plans for the MEA he said its job is to represent the employers from all sectors in the economy to the best of its abilities.

“Our job is to guide employers. We try to guide and educate our members and help them to develop good relationships with trade unions. We also have a system of collective bargaining at enterprise level, which makes for more customised solutions that reflect each company’s particular circumstances,” he said.

Farrugia said that the association always goes all-out to find means to improve and enhance the range of the services offered to its members, including professional advice that it delivers on a day-to-day basis. He said that these efforts bear fruit as is reflected by the association’s ever-increasing membership.

 

 

 

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