Forcing a right on somebody is like saying that foie gras is necessary because the geese are hungry. The topic of compulsory union membership is now on the national agenda, with the Malta Employers’ Association, the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association and the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry objecting to the idea and the GRTU – Malta Chamber of SMEs together with the employee unions declaring themselves in favour.

The context within which this issue is being discussed is one where, according to statistics issued by the Registrar of Trade Unions, based on declarations by the unions themselves, Malta’s trade union membership is increasing steadily. Assuming these declarations are honest, this trend runs counter to the one prevailing in practically all EU countries where membership in trade unions has been falling during the last decade.

With about 50 per cent of Malta’s employees being unionised, Malta’s trade union density ranks among the highest in Europe, where only Scandinavian countries have significantly higher trade union density than Malta, although even they, unlike Malta, are experiencing a decline in membership. Yet, the GRTU and employee unions are saying this is not enough and are pressing for forced membership for both companies and workers.

Some want to give the impression that non-unionised employees are somehow victims of harassment by employers who deny them of their right to association.

No one can say that this does not occur on occasion but then one also has to look at the unions’ own conduct over the years.

Both employer organisations and trade unions need to be innovative and reinvent themselves

Can they vouch that employees were never harassed to become members or leave a rival union? Have there been cases where non-unionised employees faced blatant discrimination and were deprived of overtime and promotions? Can it be denied that union members were forced to participate in politically-motivated activities and actions, with non-participants being victimised and even losing their jobs?

Even if some of these violations of fundamental human rights may have happened in the near-to-distant past, we should ensure we do not ever set the ground for them to be repeated.

Having individuals and organisations retain the freedom to choose whether they want to be members in a trade union or employer body or not is protection against such abuse.

On the other hand, the law should be firm with companies that deliberately obstruct employees from exercising their right to be unionised.

Employees who opt not to form part of a union that negotiated a collective agreement covering them too are being depicted as ‘free riders’ whose sole motivation for not being unionised is to avoid paying union dues. Yet, in many cases, their decision not to become unionised does not arise out of selfishness, or to avoid paying dues, but as a vote of no confidence based on their belief – real or perceived – that unions do not work in their interests.

The same goes for companies not affi-liated in employer organisations. In a democratic society, they should be entitled to their opinion.

Union density in Malta, as elsewhere, is also dependent on sector.

Companies in emerging services sectors – financial services, iGaming – are less likely to be unionised, mostly because employees see less value in the traditional services offered by trade unions, such as collective bargaining.

This is a major reason why both employer organisations and trade unions need to be innovative and reinvent themselves as necessary to be in tune with an industrial environment that is constantly changing and convince their public that membership works in their interest. Force-feeding membership turns this argument on its head through a paternalistic approach that dictates to rational people and organisations that membership is good for them whether they agree to it or not.

It is expected that these issues will be raised at the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development in the near future.

While we’re at it, we might as well extend the debate to include the rights of robots.

If these working machines are given citizenship, will they also be required to join a trade union?

Joseph Farrugia is director general, Malta Employers Association.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece