Two weeks ago we had the proposal that every worker is obliged to be a member of a trade union of their choice. The objective of this proposal is that no worker would be exploited or discriminated against. Moreover it is also seen as another step to eradicate precarious work, abuses and the exploitation of workers.

I would like to remove from my considerations who is making this proposal, because any such proposal should be discussed on its own merits and not on the merits of who has proposed it.

There are legal considerations that need to be made, that would have an impact on the economy as a whole. As things stand today, a person has a right to join a trade union. Equally that person has a right not to join a trade union.

Just as there is a right of association, there is also a right not to belong to an association. And if every worker is obliged to join a trade union, should employers be also obliged to be members of their own trade union, that gives them rights at law? And if we accept that workers are obliged to join a trade union, what if an employee decides that none of the trade unions offer to uphold the values that one cherishes?

If all employees are obliged to join a trade union, we can also extend that obligation to join other organisations, such as political parties or religious organisations. So where does that obligation stop? Trade unions have rights at law, but should they be preferred over other types of organisation?

When one takes all this into consideration, what would be the impact on the economy? Are we suddenly making a U-turn and becoming less liberal? Presumably trade union membership costs money. As such, through obligatory trade union membership, a person is being forced to give up some of one’s disposable income (irrespective of how big or small it is) to belong to an organi­sation, which one may not believe in.

If we accept such a principle to be correct, we should also accept that the State may take decisions for us on what we spend our disposable income

If we accept such a principle to be correct, then we should also accept that the State may take decisions for us on what we spend our disposable income. I do not believe any of us would find that acceptable.

The objective of seeking to eliminate abuse, exploitation and discrimination is very noble indeed and should be pursued. However, is obligatory trade union membership the answer? A trade union is not a regulator – rather, it is a social partner. The role of the regulator belongs to the public sector, which currently in Malta is vested in the Department for Employment and Industrial Relations.

This brings to the forefront the role of trade unions in today’s and tomorrow’s world. Over the years the trade unions have fought for their right to exist in the first place, then fought for their rights to operate freely in the workplace in representation of the employees, and then fought to strengthen the rights of the workers and to obtain better working conditions. Many of the achievements of trade unions have become entrenched into law.

Moreover, the fact that today we have a more educated workforce and the growth of services activities in our economy, such as the financial services and ICT sectors, may at times render trade unions seem obsolete, past their time. Let me state clearly that I disagree with such a point of view.

Trade unions in Malta were, are, and will remain an important part of the fabric of our economy and society in general. They are very important partners in the development of social and civil dialogue in Malta, which then has an impact on the development of our economy. Strong trade unions are also an important indicator of the quality of democracy in a country. Maybe we should start thinking of having State financing of trade unions.

The impact of technology in the place of work and on our daily lives, the crea­tion by employers of new methods of the way work is organised, the creation of less hierarchical organisation structures, the increased empowerment of employees, the development of new economic activities, the changed attitude towards work on the part of employees (it has essentially become a means to a lifestyle and not a means of survival or a career) should lead trade unions to take a different approach from their traditional one.

Trade unions need to become agents of economic change, and in this regard they have a fundamental role to play in eradicating precarious work, abuses and the ex­ploitation of workers. They can do this through persuasion and vociferously expect the regulator to do its job; not by having obligatory trade union membership.

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