Are trade unions facing a crisis?

The rate of increase in union members is out of synch with the rate of increase in employed persons

The proposal to impose trade union membership on all employed persons is a short-sighted attempt to force the worker-employer relationship of today to attune with the old trade union ways, instead of the trade unions taking a good look at themselves and trying to adapt their existence in the context of a new, and different, Malta
The proposal to impose trade union membership on all employed persons is a short-sighted attempt to force the worker-employer relationship of today to attune with the old trade union ways, instead of the trade unions taking a good look at themselves and trying to adapt their existence in the context of a new, and different, Malta

In its recently published Annual Review of Working Life 2018, Eurofound reported that Malta has recorded its lowest ever percentage of workers belonging to a union, despite the fact that the Registrar of Trade Unions had reported that Trade Union membership increased by 1,562 during that year.

Yet, that year saw an increase of some 13,000 in the working population. This means that less and less persons joining the official working force are becoming trade union members. In other words, the rate of increase in union members is out of synch with the rate of increase in employed persons.

I referred to the ‘official’ working force because there are also hundreds – if not thousands – of migrant wor­kers who are employed illegally and therefore are not included in the statistics of the working population.

In this situation, are trade unions facing a crisis?

If one considers the type of jobs that are currently being created, one quickly rea-lises why most of them do not entice the newly employed to become union members. Trade unions are strong in or employed with entities with a large workforce. Those that work with small businessmen who have a personal relationship with their employers hardly need a trade union to defend them – collective agreements can hardly be negotiated with an employer who employs less than, say, 10 workers. This comes to my mind whenever I meet an individual building contractor employing three or four persons that invariably include at least one migrant of African origin.

One should not forget the high percentage of foreign workers who are employed on an individual basis. The idea of a trade union making a collective agreement with each small employer is ridiculous. In my opinion the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations (DIER) can better handle this problem than trade unions. The employment landscape in Malta has changed radically in the last ten years and this is the reason for these astounding developments.

Instead of adapting to this new employment landscape, the General Workers Union is pushing for mandatory union membership for all. This is definitely unconstitutional as the right to belong to a trade union includes the right to refuse to do so. This is the basis of the right for freedom of association enshrined in our Constitution.

The GWU argues that when a union obtains benefits for its members, the non-members enjoy these benefits as well and therefore its stance is justified. It proposes to go around the constitutional hurdle by proposing that those who do not want to be trade union members should pay the equivalent of their trade union membership fee to a fund for the benefit of all unions. This proposal, to my mind, still defies and breaches the constitutional right of refusing to be a member of any association.

In an opinion piece about the role of unions published in The Times last Tuesday, Arthur Muscat – currently senior vice-president of the Malta Employers’ Association – accused the government of promoting the debate on the introduction of a forced and compulsory union membership for all employees.

He also criticised the suggestion of the creation of a trade union fund by pointing out that the unions are hardly in need of money, considering that they enjoy a healthy revenue not just from tax-free membership fees, but also from government support and investments.

He correctly argued that many employers’ abuses can be handled by the DIER that has enough powers by law to check and take action against rogue employers and illegal exploitation of workers.

To my mind, the abuse of migrant workers is rampant and this department should be doing more fieldwork to check people who employ these workers illegally, paying them measly wages below the national minimum wage. Again, this work is carried out after individual ‘negotiation’.

Unionising these people will not solve the problem as the unions are strong when they are defending a larger number of workers employed by one employer.

Perhaps this is a case of the need for the strengthening the human resources of the DIER, whose responsibilities naturally increase with the increase of legal and illegal employment.

This is a sector where more government action is needed. Enforcing union membership will not help with the current problems that concern the many workers who are not unionised for very good reasons.

The proposal to impose trade union membership on all employed persons is a short-sighted attempt to force the worker-employer relationship of today to attune with the old trade union ways, instead of the trade unions taking a good look at themselves and trying to adapt their existence in the context of a new, and different, Malta.

The Kurds betrayed

Many have criticised President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from a region in northern Syria, in the lead-up to a Turkish invasion, as a move that aided US adversaries like Russia and as a betrayal of the Kurds who have been very valid partners of the US in the fight against ISIS.

What many had feared became reality last Wednesday when Turkish troops began their military offensive on Kurdish forces in northern Syria.
In the run-up to this incursion, the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced – via Twitter – the start of ‘Operation Peace Spring’: a strangely named military invasion of north-eastern Syria.

Turkey’s attack followed a dramatic reversal of American policy by President Donald Trump, who after a call with Erdogan, decided to order the retreat of US forces from the area. The move cleared the way for Erdogan’s assault on the Kurds, who up to that moment were a US ally.

In response to a question about his decision, Trump reportedly said that the Kurds did not side with the allies in World War II and that ISIS fighters who might escape will likely flee to Europe.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called on Turkey to immediately cease the operation and urged restraint from all sides. He cautioned that the European Union would not fund a ‘safe zone’ inside Syria.

Countries and global organisations are now considering concrete counter measures, including the possibility of sanctions on Turkey until forces are withdrawn.

In the US, the development has led to a rare moment of bipartisan political support, with both Republican and Democratic senators cooperating on a bill that would freeze all assets belonging to Turkey’s leaders and immediately block US arms sales to the country.

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