The Malta Independent 13 June 2024, Thursday
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Relevance of trade unions and mandatory membership: what those involved think

Semira Abbas Shalan Sunday, 9 June 2024, 08:30 Last update: about 4 days ago

Construction, hospitality and tourism are the main sectors contributing to the country’s economy yet workers in these industries are either "not unionised" or show low levels of unionisation, according to Malta's leading trade unions and industry experts.

The earliest Maltese trade unions date back to the late 19th century when the influence of the British Trade Union movement and the Industrial Relations model started to dissipate in other countries. They were formed to seek balance in power dynamics between employers and employees, where workers could then be able to negotiate for fair wages, reasonable working hours and safe working conditions, shaping modern labour laws and standards.

Malta’s oldest trade union is the Malta Union of Teachers (MUT), which was founded in 1919, while the largest one is the General Workers’ Union (GWU), founded in 1943.

Recent discussions between some unions and the government regarding collective agreements for improved financial packages and working conditions appear to have fallen short or have been delayed beyond the agreements' expiry dates. This raises the question of whether trade unions have perhaps lost some of their relevance or power in today's world.

The Malta Independent on Sunday reached out to the GWU, UĦM Voice of the Workers, the Malta Employers’ Association (MEA) as well as a human resources and industrial relations consultant, enquiring about the validity of trade unions today.


Is a union, or to be part of a union, still relevant today?

All parties believed that trade unions are still important to today’s societies.

UĦM’s spokesperson said that union membership will remain relevant as it is “a form of insurance against any possible abuse by the employer and a powerful tool to safeguard workers’ rights”.

He said that the Adequate Minimum Wage Directive acknowledges such need to the point that it established a target of 80% union membership among employees.

The GWU also said that the relevance of trade unions is important now “more than ever”.

“Locally, unions remain an important part of the labour landscape. Trade unions have played a crucial role in advocating for workers' rights, securing better wages and improving working conditions,” the GWU spokesperson said.

She continued that general unions like the GWU are more active in all economic sectors, including manufacturing, aviation, disciplinary forces, maritime, public administration and public sector, energy and pharmaceutical and chemicals, professional and financial services, logistics, construction and metal, hospitality and service providers.

The GWU also said that unions are “instrumental” in negotiating collective agreements and sectoral agreements, contributing to economic stability by fostering dialogue between employers and employees, reducing industrial disputes and promoting cooperative relations.

“On more than one occasion the GWU acted as a link between foreign investors and local private investors,” she said, adding that it also influences the national agenda.

MEA’s director general Joseph Farrugia said he believed that “the relevance of a union depends on whether it is perceived to be offering a service to its members”.

However, he said that unions have always played an important role in social dialogue and in the labour market.

Human resources and industrial relations consultant Gejtu Vella said that trade unions are “an important vehicle to bring about cohesion between different categories of workers”.

“Trade unions maintain industrial democracy at the place of work. Unions also assist individual members with their grievances, negotiate collective agreements and represent workers and their dependents on various national bodies,” he said.

Vella’s advice to employers’ organisations and to the government is to never underestimate the contribution of trade unions to economic growth and industrial relations.


How effective would you say discussions on collective agreements are today?

Vella said that trade unions can be effective, and in most cases, are, often negotiating effectively and obtaining benefits, both financial and improvements in working conditions.

“At times, social dialogue fails to bring about the necessary improvements to the different sectors within the public sector because the arm negotiating on behalf of the government is under-resourced, creating backlogs in collective agreements that remain outstanding well past the due re-negotiating date,” Vella said.

He continued that when negotiations fail, industrial action is inevitable, and it “has unfortunately been a Labour government practice to try to curb legitimate industrial action being taken by trade unions by taking legal action against them. On many occasions, the Courts have dismissed such action by the government”.

The GWU spokesperson said that the union has signed seven collective/sectoral agreements that cover over 9,000 workers just last week and said that discussions on collective agreements are still very effective.

“The effectiveness of these discussions can be seen in excellent working conditions, relatively stable industrial relations and improved employment conditions over time,” the GWU said.

She continued that the effectiveness of the discussions is also reflected in the membership numbers and the degree of engagement from workers.

“High union membership indicates strong worker support and the ability to mobilise effectively, thereby enhancing the unions' negotiating power with the government,” she said.

The UĦM spokesperson said that although at times, there are issues which might escalate and give rise to industrial action, the overall picture is positive.

“On average, UĦM signs a collective agreement every 10 days, and these invariably result in better employment conditions, more flexibility, better career progression paths and improved take-home pay,” the spokesperson said.

Farrugia agreed that discussions between unions, employer organisations and the government at national level are “critical for designing and implementing economic and social policy”.

He said that at enterprise level, employees may feel the need to become union members for collective bargaining purposes or at times to address particular issues.

“One should not equate unionisation with industrial conflict. In most cases, management in the private sector works well with unions based on an understanding that a collective agreement can work in their mutual interest, even if negotiations can be a challenging exercise,” he said.

Farrugia continued that the public sector is more politically charged by its nature, and the character of collective bargaining and industrial relations may have different aspects.

“This is why, for example, the MEA has long reiterated that collective bargaining in the public sector should not be conducted close to elections,” Farrugia said.


Should discussions continue on the proposal for mandatory union membership?

All parties were asked about the proposal for mandatory trade union membership, a promise which comes from the Labour Party programme, where it also pledges to start discussions with social partners for the implementation of this measure.

Differing views were presented by unions, as opposed to the MEA. The GWU said that it still advocates and believes in automatic union membership “as a means to combat precarious employment, abuse and exploitation, particularly in sectors lacking protection”.

Additionally, the GWU said that this way, a voice can be given to the thousands of employees who wish to become members but are prohibited from joining a trade union by these employers.

“We have initiated discussions on national level, and we are committed to introduce this measure. I don’t believe that employers’ associations have any legal right to object to this as they don’t have the remit to represent employees. We want to give workers the opportunity to express their concerns and demands without fear of oppression or discrimination,” the GWU said.

The GWU spokesperson said that the proposal does not impinge on the right of association, having consulted with foreign experts.

“This proposal also addresses the concern of 'free riders' who benefit from collective bargaining without contributing towards trade unions,” the GWU said.

The UĦM said that the proposal is currently on the agenda of the Employment Relations Board.

“UĦM believes in a model whereby mandatory membership is only applicable to low-income workers as these are the most prone for exploitation. So far, the matter is still pending,” the spokesperson said.

UĦM also agreed that mandatory membership does not impinge on the rights of employees for free choice, as employees would have the right to choose their preferred union or even set up a house union.

“Moreover, those who still do not want to enrol in a union but are benefitting from better conditions through a collective agreement may opt to pay the equivalent of the membership fee in a special fund, which would be intended for training and strengthening social dialogue,” the UĦM said.

The MEA, which opposes the proposal, said it stands firm in its belief that any sort of association, whether it is in a trade union or an employer organisation, should be freely entered into and never be subject to imposition.

“Based on this principle, we can never support mandatory union membership in any form. It is up to unions and employer bodies to make themselves relevant to their constituents in order for them to see the value of associating themselves,” Joe Farrugia said.  

“Since the employer should have no say or influence on the decision whether an employee becomes a union member, such employer cannot be penalised for not having a collective agreement in his company. Whether the company is covered by a collective agreement or not does not depend on the employer. Therefore, any tendering requirements that award extra points for companies that have a collective agreement can be challenged,” he continued.

Farrugia said that forcing membership on anyone is a “violation of fundamental liberties” and the decision should be taken without any coercion.

Gejtu Vella also expressed himself against mandatory union membership, believing it “unconstitutional” and limits an individual’s right to association, or not.

“Mandatory membership raises other issues, not only on employers but also on the trade unions themselves,” Vella said. He said he felt that this does not only impinge on one’s rights, but also diminishes the importance of the trade union movement.

Vella said that trade unions must find positive alternatives to attract new members to their folds. “Giving away free membership or substituting membership in different formats to increase membership should not be the way forward,” he said.

He also noted that mandatory membership goes against the ILO Convention C087 on the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise.

“Closed shops”, as practised locally in the not-too-distant past, exclude workers who do not form part of a particular union or, worse still, opt to be in another union, Vella said.

“In my opinion, we should not turn the clock to those sad times in trade unionism. Trade union membership should be promoted rather than imposed,” he said.


Is there a sector in the country which lacks a union for its workers?

Several mentioned that sectors which involve third country nationals or low-paid jobs lack unions for their workers.

The UĦM said that construction and tourism are some examples of low union density, the reason being that whenever they attempt to join a union, they are faced with the threat of having their contract terminated or not renewed, making it clear that any such move could spell trouble.

“This is why mandatory membership for low-income workers would be a powerful tool to start addressing exploitation of migrants and TCNs,” the UĦM said.

The GWU also mentioned construction as exhibiting low unionisation, along with the insurance and finance sectors. It also said that mandatory membership would bolster efforts to combat precarious employment and exploitation for these workers.

Vella said that two sectors, which contribute to the growth of the Maltese economy are the construction and the hospitality industry, and workers in both industries are “not unionised”.

“Trade unions should organise national campaigns with the aim to improve the salaries and working conditions of these workers. This may also be an opportunity for trade unions to improve membership,” Vella said, acknowledging the challenges ahead but expressing confidence that “once the ball starts rolling, I am sure there would be no stopping”.

Farrugia said that trade union membership is widespread in Malta, but it is more concentrate in some sectors than others.

“We also have a good range of general and sector specific unions. The public sector and manufacturing, for example, have a higher density of union membership than other sectors. This characteristic is common in many countries,” Farrugia said.


Is the power of trade unions declining in Malta?

Last year, PL MEP Alfred Sant spoke about the power of trade unions declining in Europe, leading to the stagnation of income for European workers. The parties were asked if they would say that this is also the case in Malta.

“It is indeed a phenomenon that trade union membership is falling worldwide, for various reasons, such as the fact that in the EU, there are many directives that regulate the labour market, which may limit the scope of collective bargaining, as many entitlements would already have been enshrined in these directives,” Farrugia said.

He continued that there is also a growing individualistic culture whereby employees would rather negotiate their own terms than bargain collectively.

“In Malta, younger people are more mobile and switch jobs more frequently. This makes them less reliant on collective bargaining to improve their working conditions,” he noted.

However, Farrugia said that unions will always have a pivotal role to play, adding that many of the benefits and conditions of the directives are the result of engagement of unions and employer bodies in EU institutions.

“It is for this reason that governments should assist in capacity building for the social partners to carry out their mission of social dialogue more effectively,” Farrugia said.

Vella, in turn said that “it is too simplistic to attribute the deterioration in income to the decline in trade union membership”.

“If anything, trade unions in Malta engage in collective bargaining and improve wages/salaries and other conditions of work. The local downward trends in wages and salaries are the result of the huge influx of low-skilled third country nationals without any forward planning, which unfortunately have pushed wages downwards and many low-income families into the risk of poverty,” Vella explained.

The GWU said that the situation in Malta regarding trade unions and income stagnation is somewhat distinct from the broader European context.

The spokesperson said that trade union density in Malta is still higher than in many other European countries.

“While there has been a general trend of declining union membership in Europe, Maltese unions have maintained a relatively strong presence in the labour market and continue to play significant roles in negotiations and labour relations,” the GWU said.

The GWU said that the relatively strong presence of trade unions, combined with robust economic growth and supportive government policies, has helped maintain wage growth and mitigate the extent of income stagnation for Maltese workers.

“However, ongoing monitoring of economic and labour market trends is essential to ensure these positive conditions continue,” it said.

The UĦM said that in Malta, membership in unions in recent years has been stable and gradually increasing.

“However, in the private sector, especially those areas which have experienced rapid growth, membership has not kept up the pace,” the UĦM said.

The UĦM spokesperson said that according to the latest annual report, issued by the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations, for every employer who is enrolled in an employer organisation, there are 11 workers who are members in a union.

“Given that this ratio does not mirror the actual total number of workers in the employment market to the total number of employers, it is clear that employers have understood more the importance of joining forces when compared with workers, who are relatively under-represented,” the UĦM said.

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