Question time: Two sides of the coin
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Question time: Two sides of the coin

If freedom of association is a fundamental human right how can a worker be forced to join a trade union?

Clayton Bartolo, Labour MP

During this administration, workers’ rights have been high on the national agenda. We have seen unprecedented measures being implemented with success, such as the right given to members of disciplined forces to join a union of their choice. As a result of this, the police force members got a new collective agreement which settled anomalies that have been taking place for years and improved working conditions.

Many other issues related to workers’ conditions were also addressed. Thousands of workers and pensioners are being paid for injustices that took place along the years with the government allocating more that €10 million a year to settle these disputes. All this is happening because the country is moving forward and its labour force is being motivated to live the success and not asked to do one sacrifice after the other like the times of the last Nationalist administration.

Because of the strength of our economy workers’ unions are continuously asking for better conditions. And as a result, their members are benefitting from new collective agreements. New agreements were signed for public sector workers, teachers and nurses and the minimum wage was also increased. All these changes were negotiated between organised unions and the government.

In such a scenario, the General Workers’ Union felt that it was time to make the next step and insist on its idea that all workers should be members of a union of their choice. This is a proposal intended to improve workers’ conditions and assure that everyone takes a fair share of the country’s success. Some employers are also on record saying that they would rather negotiate with a union than with their employees individually.

However, there are people who would prefer not to join a union even though it has been proved beneficial to be represented by a strong organisation. Some of these would argue that they have enough bargaining power with their expertise in a sector or another – an argument which is also a valid one.

Keeping all this in mind, and following the reactions to the General Workers’ Union proposal, I believe that it’s a proposal that shouldn’t be ignored. As the Prime Minister stated in his budget speech, I believe that it is time for the country to discuss the possibility of all workers being unionised.

This should happen with a parallel discussion on whether all businesses should be required to join a chamber of commerce. However, as with other issues related to industrial relations, the first discussions must be held between the social partners within the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development (MCESD). An agreement similar to that on the minimum wage would be the best case scenario.

Karl Gouder, Nationalist Party spokesman on employment and industrial relations

Over the past few months we have been hearing from different sources different opinions on whether workers should be made to join trade unions by force or otherwise. I have no doubt that this debate will increase momentum during the year ahead.

First of all, before going into the merits of the case, let me say that this is a very sensitive and important debate and if the nation feels that we should go into it then we should do so intelligently and without any partisan agenda.

There are two sides to the coin of this argument. The first is, as you are pointing out, freedom of association is a fundamental human right and therefore a worker should be free to decide to join or not join a trade union. One would argue that if a worker is forced to join a trade union then this will impinge on the fundamental right of even deciding not to join.

On the other hand, the people advocating for forced trade union membership are mostly doing it with very good intentions. Their argument is that as time is passing, many workers are for some reason or another not joining trade unions (probably not of their own fault) and therefore unions are losing bargaining power and hence not being able to get better conditionsfor workers.

Their argument is that if all workers join unions, then this will give them strength and be in a position to bargain better deals for our workers. 

The above and the fact that this debate is starting to happen now is worrying. At a time when Malta is achieving strong economic results, such debate should not arise if all was fine. The fact that such a debate is arising means that something is seriously wrong.

The Nationalist Party has been for quite some time now saying that although the country is achieving strong economic results, this is not reaching a substantial chunk of our workforce. We have come to a time where a substantial part of our workforce, although gainfully occupied, is still not able to lead a decent life – this is what we would call the ‘working poor’.

The Nationalist Party is open to this debate and will be going into it with an open mind. However, our main point is that irrespective of forced trade union membership or not, the main problem is the creation of this ‘working poor’ class. Compounded with this, the fact that this is being created at a time of local and international economic boom is even more worrying.

As a nation, the first thing we need to do is address this issue, ignoring the problem, as the government is conveniently doing, will only make things worse.

We as the Nationalist Party are committed to ensure that each and every person living and working in Malta is given the opportunity to live a life worth living in a European nation in thexzzzzzzzzz 21st century.

Charles Polidano, Educator, Democratic Party

A forced right becomes a wrongdoing. Membership in any organisation (including a trade union) should be a matter of free choice. Forcing someone to eat, even if the food is good, will make you sick.

A trade union may be defined as an organisation consisting predominantly of employees, with its main functions including the negotiation of rates of pay and conditions of employment for its members. Apart from fair salaries, trade unions should monitor ‘other’ work conditions, including health and safety regulations, and standard of living, including free time. The ongoing education of the members as an integral part of their lifelong learning process should not be ignored.

Forced trade union membership may be considered as a subtle way to silent trade unions. If trade union membership is made compulsory, especially if it is paid by the employer (if not State funded), it is likely to become a discrete process in domesticating trade unions into tame, employer-friendly organisations. It will only perpetuate and legitimise employees’ alienation rather than minimising their exploitation as it should be.

In simple jargon, it is like rewarding treats to your neighbour’s dog so that you may invade their privacy whenever you want without any resistance. ‘Imposed memberships’ is likely to reduce the quality of services offered by trade unions and may give rise to conflicts of interest. It is simply absurd to regiment employees in any kind of organisation to safeguard some other presumed right. In some Communist states, trade union membership was very high to give the misperception that workers are so much respected that they never need to act in any industrial dispute. A classical case is in Cuba, where over 80 per cent of the employees are registered in a trade union, thus having one of the highest ‘trade union densities’ in the world.

Trade unions should offer incentives through effective benefits in order to attract membership. In democratic states having very good economic development, such as Scandinavian countries, trade unions do attract the vast majority of employees (about two-thirds) without any imposition.

In Malta the majority of employees are members in trade unions. Employees are to be encouraged to enrol in trade unions through appropriate education and positive marketing. Finally, some food for thought: how are the membership fees being spent? What percentage of these fees is invested in employee-education? To what extent do trade union members get legal support if required? Is it worth being a member of a trade union in Malta during its best time?

If you would like to put any questions to the parties in Parliament send an e-mail marked clearly Question Time to editor@timesofmalta.com.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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