The annual report by the Registrar of Trade Unions was published in the Government Gazette of November 1. As usual, the report included the latest membership figures of Malta’s 32 trade unions and eight employer associations, split in terms of male and female members (as applicable) and based on self-reporting, as obliged by law. These detailed statistics make for some sobering reflections.

The general trend is up: almost all 40 organisations have registered modest increases in their membership figures. The most notable increase comes from the Union of Professional Educators (UPE), which has more than doubled its membership – from 564 members reported in 2017/8 to 1,866 in 2018/9. Nevertheless, the Malta Union of Teachers, Malta’s oldest and first registered trade union, from which the UPE members split, still increased its members – from 9,697 to 9,903.

Malta’s two general unions, the General Workers’ Union (GWU) and the Unjoni Ħaddiema Magħqudin (UHM), both registered minimal membership gains of less than 1,000 members each. Some three-fourths of Malta’s unionised members are organised in these two unions.

Their membership tally – 51,878 for the GWU; 25,821 for the UHM – includes almost 11,500 pensioner members.

With migrant workers becoming the ‘new normal’ in Malta, the future of local trade unions may increasingly depend on their ability to appeal to such an occupational category

The Malta Employers Association (MEA), the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association (MHRA) and the Association of General Retailers and Traders (still known as the GRTU), have consolidated as Malta’s pre-eminent employer bodies.

This report and its data need to be seen in the context of the rapidly internationalising local workforce. In the second quarter of 2018 (so around the same time to which these trade union membership figures refer), the Labour Force Survey suggests a workforce of over 231,000, with tens of thousands of foreign workers included.

Excluding pensioners, the worker-members of trade unions in Malta amount to around 90,000: a rough trade union density of 39 per cent. This would be one of the lowest trade union densities ever recorded in Malta.

The trend suggests that some migrant workers are becoming unionised, but most are obviously not. They operate in industries – well-paying (as in gaming or fin-tech) or less well-paying (as in construction and quarrying) where union membership is neither normal nor encouraged.

They may operate in shady areas of the economy at the behest of employers who would prefer to operate ‘under the radar’.

More significantly, as we are reminded by Clyde Caruana, Executive Chair of JobsPlus, many of these workers are in Malta for a fixed period of time: typically, three years. They have no intention of settling down and settling in. Such ‘birds of passage’ are less likely to affiliate themselves to unions, just as they are less likely to seek to integrate in our communities. They are here with single-minded purpose: for the money that they can make and save.

Trade unions are reading the signs of the times. They can respond to this new reality by offering services to foreign workers while they are in Malta. A commendable initiative by the GWU is the operation of services for Italian workers and pensioners – members of the CGIL (the largest Italian Confederation of Trade Unions) who are working and residing in Malta.

The number of Italians working in Malta has tripled in the last four years, and this GWU-CGIL service initiative – to be inaugurated at the end of November – builds trade union relevance and a presence to an otherwise neglected group. What can be tailor-made to Italian workers could be replicated with workers of other nationalities.

With migrant workers becoming the ‘new normal’ in Malta, the future of local trade unions may increasingly depend on their ability to appeal to such an occupational category.

Godfrey Baldacchino is Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Board of the Centre for Labour Studies at the University of Malta.

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