One of Malta's leading trade unionists, Tony Zarb, has died aged 68, his son announced on Sunday.

Zarb served as general secretary of the General Workers' Union between 1998 and 2015, and despite his ailing health, he was still serving as acting secretary of the union's pensioners section.

He was awarded Gieħ ir-Repubblika in 2015.

Tony Zarb started out as a cutting operator at the Blue Bell Jeans factory, slowly working his way up from a worker to a voice for most of them.

He became secretary-general of the GWU in 1998 consistently remaining one of the Nationalist Party’s harshest critics and one of the loudest opponents to Malta’s EU membership.

His most famous campaign was, however, Issa Daqshekk (Enough already), a series of mass protests in the early 2000s aimed at preventing the government from increasing taxes.

While at the helm of the Union, Zarb was one of the first trade unionists to fight precarious employment and the exploitation of foreign workers.

His son Elton announced his father's passing on Facebook, posting a picture of his dad and writing:

"I have no words in this truly difficult moment," he wrote.

"Dad, the love I have for you will never die."

Zarb made an appearance during a Labour campaign event for the elderly last March, to urge them to vote for the government.

Prime Minister Robert Abela expressed his condolences, saying Zarb always put the weak and the workers as his priority.

On election day last March, a visibly weaker Zarb posted a video to Facebook, urging hurt Labour supporters to vote.

“My friends, this might be my last election campaign, because I am no different than anyone else. I’m not special,” he told his followers, adding that he will keep fighting for what he believes is good for the country.

The often controversial trade union giant spent most of his career striving for better salaries and conditions for workers, negotiated countless collective agreements and was behind some of the major nationwide worker strikes and protests.

During an interivew with iNews in 2018, he recalled one moment from his time at the GWU, which he said he will remember forever.

It happened during a strike at Air Malta when he was secretary for the port and transport section.

“I remember we were in the middle of the strike when two men came rushing to my office with a baby in their hands. They told me that the baby needs to go to the UK for urgent medical treatment and if they don’t make it there by noon, the baby could die,” he recalled.

“I remember we suspended the strike immediately so that this family could be taken to the UK.

“Some 12 years later I was with my wife in Birżebbuġa and a young man came up to me and said: "You’re Tony Zarb, right? You saved my life. I was that baby who you helped get to the UK for medical treatment."

“I still get shivers when I remember,” Zarb had said.

The Nationalist and Labour parties expressed condolences in separate statements.

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