A GWU proposal to oblige all employees to join a trade union includes an option of non-enrolment, but those doing so will have to pay a fraction of the membership fee into a common trade union fund.

The clarification came from General Workers’ Union general secretary Josef Bugeja after a recent meeting he held with Social Dialogue Minister Edward Zammit Lewis, from which it emerged that the government is studying the proposal.

Rolled out last year as part of its 2019 pre-Budget document, the GWU’s call for mandatory trade union membership had fuelled controversy and objections, not least among employers.

The union had justified its proposal by saying it would boost the fight against precarious employment and exploitation in sectors where unionisation is very low or non-exist, such as in construction and tourism.

While not disputing the intentions behind the proposal, critics had warned that it would be in breach of the right of freedom of association as established in the Constitution and in the European Charter of Human Rights.

Legal experts had pointed out that just as an individual is free to enrol in a political party or not, workers should be left at liberty to choose whether to join a union.

When contacted, the GWU chief said this legal impediment had been taken into consideration when the union put forward the idea. 

This would address the issue of ‘free riders’ who have no interest in joining a union, knowing that in the long run they will still benefit from collective bargaining

“Those not wanting to enrol would be bound to pay a fee, cheaper than the full union membership, in the wake of the fact that non-members still benefit from any improvements in the conditions of work which are negotiated as part of a new collective agreement,” he said. 

“This would address the issue of ‘free riders’ who have no interest in joining a union, knowing that in the long run they will still benefit from collective bargaining.”

Mr Bugeja pointed out that such a model was already in place in countries like Austria, whose labour authority collects this fee from non-members and administers it to the unions through a common fund.

The GWU secretary-general noted that, in his first reaction, the Prime Minister had agreed with the proposal of mandatory membership while the Opposition leader had said he would need to discuss it further, albeit agreeing in principle.

The idea had received a warm reception from all other trade union representatives during a presentation which the GWU made to the Malta Council of Economic and Social Development a few months ago.

However, there is no indication that its implementation is imminent. A Social Dialogue Ministry spokesman told Times of Malta that studies were still being done on whether and how to implement the proposal.

“The minister understands the sensitivity of matters concerning industrial and employment relations, thus he will engage with all social partners and interested parties before identifying the best way forward,” the spokesman said.

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