Right to strike under threat

The GWU was right in calling the strike, also because workers and commuters alike deserve a fair deal from the new operators.

The right of workers to strike is a fundamental right recognised by the International Labour Organisation, of which Malta is a member state.

Legalities aside, it is also a necessary component of the equilibrium that keeps any country’s otherwise precarious industrial relations apple-cart from toppling over. In the absence of any safeguards for workers’ rights, the situation would be little different from legalised slavery. Employees would be totally at the mercy of employers: and ultimately it is in both parties’ interest that this finely-tuned balancing act is preserved.

At a glance it can be seen that the strike called by the General Workers Union regarding public transport employees ticks all the above boxes. The bus drivers’ chief grievance concerned the conditions of employment imposed by operators Autobuses de Leon, which would be considered unreasonable in any developed countries.

The GWU was right in calling the strike, also because workers and commuters alike deserve a fair deal from the new operators. Commuters cannot expect a decent service in the absence of decent working conditions for drivers. Poor working conditions create frustration, anger and fatigue amongst drivers: a price which should not be paid by commuters.

As long as driving a bus remains one of the lowest paid jobs in Malta one cannot expect drivers to provide a service with a smile. Given that government’s subsidies to Autobuses de Leon in its first year amounted to some €23 million (twice the €10 million subsidies Arriva received), it also has responsibility to ensure that the new company respects the most basic of workers’ rights. 

Moreover there are also safety considerations. Taking a break after six hours of driving also ensures that drivers are not exhausted. It is in fact an essential safety consideration enshrined in most countries’ legislation: not just for bus drivers, but also long-haul trucking and other similar motoring services.

One would have expected a so-called social democrat government to bind the new service operators to provide a living wage and decent conditions. But instead the deal remains shrouded in mystery, since the contract with Autobuses de Leon remains unpublished. Is there anything to hide? Are there any guarantees binding the company to respect workers’ rights?

It is also debatable whether the present subsidies are enough, and whether the model used by the Spanish company is sustainable given that the company is trying to save money off its workers backs. If this is the case, government could be once again throwing money at a failed model of public transport: confirming the need for a complete overhaul and new outlook for public transport in this country. 

One must also question whether Malta’s industrial relations legislation is fully in line with international standards. The court’s decision to rule the strike as unlawful sheds light on the 2011 amendment to the Employment and Industrial Relations Act 2002 (EIRA), which empowered the minister responsible for transport to declare specific jobs in land and sea-based transport in Malta as ‘essential services’, effectively removing the right to strike from transport workers.

This change to labour law, introduced by former PN minister Austin Gatt, was made without consulting the social partners and is in contrast to the consensual approach that characterised the evolution of the EIRA. The 2011 amendment was introduced without consulting the Employment Relations Board and the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development, despite the serious concerns raised by removing the right to withdraw labour from so many employees.

Gatt’s amendment declared as ‘essential’ 541 specified jobs relating to the provision of public passenger transport services, and another 71 specified jobs in the provision of scheduled public ferry services between Malta and Gozo: obliging these workers to ‘deliver service even in the event of industrial action’, or face dismissal. 

The specified roles include 350 drivers, an astounding figure when compared to the maximum number of doctors needed during a strike, which the law sets at 100.  

According to the standards set by the International Labour Organization and most European countries, “essential services” are limited to jobs and activities which are necessary for the safety and security of society. Public transport is discernibly an important service, but the ILO’s Principles Concerning the Right to Strike says that essential services should be ‘strictly necessary’ operations such as the provision of a basic ferry service for remote islands.

The original EIRA limited “essential services” to minimal medical services, law and order, air traffic control, civil protection and water provision, while the only offices on the ‘essential’ list were from the Department of Health.

Before Gatt’s 2011 amendment, changes to the list of essential services were only possible through the Prime Minister’s order published in the Government Gazette, or by a resolution passed by parliament.

However, Gatt introduced an amendment which defined ‘minimal’ or ‘essential’ transport provision as the equivalent of one-half of normal public passenger transport services in Malta and Gozo. It is unclear how the figure of 350 drivers was reached.

Such tinkering with basic legislation evidences that the right to strike is under threat, in Malta as elsewhere. A government elected on a social democratic platform should be repealing those amendments, not enforcing them itself.

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