Should we say "issa daqshekk" to trade unions?

Free trade unions have historically played a crucial role in Malta, finding success mainly among blue-collar workers, starting in the Malta Drydocks and continuing in the manufacturing sector. Unions have served a greater social purpose as well. Over the decades when they were a force to be reckoned with, unions played a key role in bridging the gap between the highest and lowest paid employees.


Trade unions in Malta in the 1990s and early 2000s more often than not used a confrontational approach, famous of which is the “Issa daqshekk” campaign, led by union stalwarts such as Tony Zarb which aimed to force the Maltese Nationalist Government to reverse its plans to increase taxes.


Former GWU secretary-general Tony Zarb
Former GWU secretary-general Tony Zarb. Source: Malta Today

Indeed the General Workers Union (GWU), which is by far Malta’s largest union, has traditionally primarily represented blue-collar workers and their families. Since its foundation, the union has adhered to a leftist ideology, publicly backing the Labour Party in its early years. The Union Ħaddiema Magħqudin (UĦM), Malta’s second largest union, grew in part as a Christian Democratic counterbalance to the GWU. It has tended to lean to the right of the political spectrum and attracts mostly white-collar workers as its members.


Despite these allegiances to the main political parties in Malta, a study conducted by Manwel Debono in 2017 indicated that Maltese workers appear to be motivated to join unions mostly for instrumental rather than ideological reasons.



The same study also concludes that the union movement in Malta is oriented towards older, more traditional workers, and does not appear to be particularly effective at attracting and retaining younger ones, part-time workers, workers on definite contracts and those in the private sector, especially in smaller organisations. Debono warns that the traditional core of union members is set to continue decreasing due to economic, organisational and demographic trends, which will inevitably lead to trade union membership in Malta to drop. This begs the question whether trade unions still have a role to play in the modern Maltese landscape.


The dynamics of the Maltese workforce


Excluding pensioners, the members of trade unions in Malta number around 90,000: a rough trade union density of 39%. This translates to one of the lowest trade union densities ever recorded in Malta.


Foreign research indicates that workers in atypical work relationships (i.e. fixed-term contracts, part time contracts, temporary agency work, etc.) find it difficult to unionise and the trend suggests that while some migrant workers are becoming unionised, most of them are not.


They operate in industries – well-paying (e.g. gaming or fin-tech) or less well-paying (e.g. construction and quarrying) where union membership is neither normal nor encouraged.

They may operate in shady areas of the economy at the behest of employers who would prefer to operate ‘under the radar’.


Therefore, in order for Maltese unions to remain relevant, they need to read the signs of the times. One example of this is the role trade unions are playing in light of the precarious conditions being faced by food couriers in Malta in the emerging gig economy. Food couriers’ employment conditions are far from optimal, with workers who are mostly non-EU nationals reportedly making as little as €3 per hour.


Both the GWU and the UĦM have called on the government to intervene to stem the abuse, with the GWU calling on the general population not to use their services since this was tantamount to accepting slave labour. The unions are pushing parliament to legislate the pay transparency directive, enabling these workers to be fully protected at law. The outcome from this conflict can help shape unions as dynamic organisations which can still contribute to a positive difference to workers’ lives and livelihoods.


The COVID reality


Due to COVID-19 implications, many workers have had to make the move to remote working or teleworking, while some took pay cuts and others began working four-day weeks, losing overtime opportunities. Whilst some employees have found it difficult to adapt to remote working arrangements, remote working has made more human resources available, as people who would otherwise not be able to work fixed hours are now able to work.


Once the pandemic is over, where remote working does not impact productivity, Maltese unions need to assess whether or not they should be at the forefront, pushing for a hybrid model which strikes a balance between remote working and being physically in the office or workplace.


Right to disconnect


In 2019, the Maltese were among the most keen in Europe to see the EU take action to address work-life balance and wages. This led Maltese MEP Alex Agius Saliba to head a proposal which was approved by the European Parliament in 2021 to approve the ‘right to disconnect’. The right to disconnect allows workers to refrain from engaging in work-related tasks, activities and electronic communication, such as phone calls, emails and other messages, outside their working time, including during rest periods, official and annual holidays, maternity, paternity and parental leave, and other types of leave, without facing any adverse consequences.


This has been met with strong objections from employers’ associations, which are pushing hard for this legislation to be delayed for as long as possible. It is the unions’ role to ensure that employees are protected and can maintain a positive work life-balance.


Four-day working week


In March 2021, it was reported that Spain could become one of the first countries in the world to trial the four-day working week after the government agreed to launch a modest pilot project for companies interested in the idea. Proponents of this idea believe that this will improve productivity and enhance the mental health of the working population. Whilst such an idea will undoubtedly be welcomed with scepticism by the Maltese employers, it is the duty of trade unions to explore this idea and push it in the national agenda.



Way forward


Whilst trade unions have undoubtedly undergone a significant transformation in their approach in these last thirty years, their existence depends on their ability to understand the signs of the times and start listening to modern workers’ needs without alienating the needs of the traditional blue-collar members which have contributed to their success story so far.


 

Source | Debono 2018, An analysis of trade union membership in Malta