Survey confirms fears of unions’ inflated membership

Study shows over 33% of workforce is unionised: at 62,454 this is far less than the 91,576 workers registered with the unions’ registrar

GWU Secretary General Josef Bugeja
GWU Secretary General Josef Bugeja
Josef Vella, secretary general of the UHM
Josef Vella, secretary general of the UHM

A recent survey carried out by the National Trade Union Forum found that 33.8% of employees are unionised, a staggering 29,000 fewer than the membership figures published by the Registrar of Trade Unions.

Last month, MaltaToday published figures from an internal document showing that the General Workers’ Union overstated its membership by a similar figure, leading the Registrar of Trade Unions to admit that the registrar never carried out a proper audit on union membership.

In the registrar’s latest report, showing trade union membership figures for 2012/13, the total number of unionised workers stood at 91,576. However this does not match the results of the survey carried out by the National Trade Union Forum. 

33.8% of the total number of workers in full-time and part-time employment in December 2012 works out at 62,454, or 32% fewer than the figures published by the registrar.

Barring a sharp drop in union membership over the past three years, the incongruity between the figures confirms fears that unions overstate their membership.

The discrepancy could in fact be larger given that most unions include pensioners and retired workers in their membership numbers. 

According to the figures provided in the latest registrar’s report, the GWU’s main rival, the Union Haddiema Maghqudin, had 26,103 members in 2012/13. The third largest union is the Malta Union of Teachers, which according to the report has almost 8,000 members.

 Although unions do recruit new members, these are outnumbered by workers who leave for a variety of reasons. Sources told MaltaToday that the larger unions, which are usually at each other’s throat in their bid to attract more members, inflate their numbers by keeping on their books workers who fail to pay membership fees, dormant members as well as members who do not officially resign from the union.

In the latest registrar’s report, the GWU claimed to have 46,831 members but a leaked document shows that its membership stood at just over 18,000 in 2014, a staggering 29,000 fewer than the figures it submitted to the Registrar of Trade Unions.

In reaction, the union’s new secretary-general, Josef Bugeja reassured MaltaToday that the official statistics are neither inflated nor outdated, adding that the numbers published by the registrar are “real”.

“The numbers cannot be inflated because they are audited and checked against the records provided by employers,” Bugeja said, adding that the statistics are verified by the registrar every year. Confirming that the union’s current membership stood at around 47,000, Bugeja explained that the figures cannot be tampered with because these are checked against information provided by the private sector and the government. 

But the Registrar of Trade Unions told MaltaToday that his office has never carried out a proper audit and is currently in the process of recruiting inspectors, which would allow it to scrutinise the information provided by the unions. 

The registrar’s office, which falls under the Department of Industrial and Employment Relations, said that discussions are underway to improve the process of union membership verification. 

The law grants the registrar the power to inspect the records of membership of unions at any time and trade unions are obliged to give the registrar “all reasonable facilities to do so.”

But such inspections are carried out at the request of employers at particular work places.

Asked whether the figures provided by the GWU were trustworthy, the office of the registrar said “each year, all registered unions are obliged to submit a declaration confirming that their membership records have been brought up to date.” 

Yet the definition of what constitutes a member of a union is established by the statute of the respective unions, which may differ from one union to another.