For the first time ever, membership in trade unions in Malta has gone over the 100,000 mark. The latest report by the Director of Industrial and Employment Relations, in her role as Registrar of Trade Unions, appeared in the Government Gazette of November 27. Thirty-one trade unions reported 100,629 members as at June 2018. That is 1,600 higher than in June 2017. Almost two out of every five trade union members (38 percent) are female.

Trade union figures in Malta continue to increase; this trend is contrary to the dynamic in most of the rest of Europe, where the definitive trend is down. The exodus of large manufacturing firms to Asia, the rise of individual contracts ‘for service’ and the expansion of the gig economy in a burgeoning services sector has not hit Malta that hard.

The public sector remains practically fully unionised. And a local economy that continues to recruit workers at an astonishing rate makes the situation ripe for trade union affiliation and organisation.

The rate of growth in trade union membership is, however, definitely not keeping up with the increase in the domestic labour supply. The NSO labour force survey for the 2nd quarter of 2018 reports 231,152 employees, 13,000 more than the previous year.

We must also take note that local trade union figures also include a number of pensioners – including 7,843 affiliated to the General Workers’ Union, and 3,205 to the Unjon Ħaddiema Magħqudin: Voice of the Worker. This suggests that the national unionisation rate – worked out as the percentage of those gainfully employed who are members of a trade union – has dipped to 38 per cent.

It is the lowest unionisation rate in Malta in many decades; and down almost ten percentage points from 2013

This is the 7th highest in the EU, and puts Malta on a par with Luxembourg. Still, it is the lowest unionisation rate in Malta in many decades; and down almost ten percentage points from 2013, when it was 47 per cent.

The recent suggestion, spearheaded by the GWU and touted by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat in his most recent budget speech, to have every worker in Malta join a trade union, needs to be evaluated in this context.

 Non-members benefit from the outcomes of collective bargaining in equal measure to their unionised colleagues. And so, the incentive to stay away, sit on the proverbial fence and ‘free ride’ on any improved conditions of work is tempting and, let’s face it, makes economic common sense.

But common sense is not necessarily good sense.  Otherwise, the irony is that trade unions are respected and valued social partners at national level since 1990; while their rank and file membership is compromised at company level. If anything is to be done, the trade unions know that the time to act is now: before the situation worsens, and while the local labour market is tight and worker negotiation power is extensive.

Unlike other countries, it is professional employees who are the most likely to be unionised in Malta: teachers, pharmacists, doctors, pilots, professional officers, midwives and nurses, air traffic controllers, university lecturers, engineers, family therapists, police officers, psychologists and counsellors are all well represented in trade union organisations.

The GWU maintains its pole position as the largest trade union in Malta: half of Malta’s trade union members – 50,903 – are organised in and by the GWU, within its nine sections. The UĦM is the second largest, with 25,739 members, organised in its six sections.

However, to be noted is the existence of two trade unions, set up since 2016, which are affiliates of the UĦM: the Independent Bankers Union and the Union of Professional Educators. Both can be considered as offshoots of the traditional unions in their respective field:  the Malta Union of Bank Employees and the Malta Union of Teachers respectively. Together, the IBU and UPE have over 1,000 members.

Following a decision at its general conference in 2015, so-called ‘in house unions’, like IBU and UPE, are part of the UĦM’s strategy for building membership strength without subsuming new members within the main union body.

Godfrey Baldacchino is professor of sociology at the University of Malta and chairs its board for the Centre for Labour Studies.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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