Malta: Latest working life developments Q4 2018

Mandatory trade union membership and the first collective agreement for police officers are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in Malta in the fourth quarter of 2018.

Debate about mandatory union membership

During the 2019 budget debate, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat stated that the most effective way to eradicate precarious work is to make it compulsory by law for every worker to be a member of a trade union. The premise is that compulsory trade union membership would give a voice to a sizeable number of workers who, due to their vulnerable position in the workplace, are faced with working conditions and pay which may be below legal minimum standards. The Prime Minister suggested that employers should also be legally bound to register as members of an employer organisation.

The statement was welcomed by the General Workers’ Union, which had originally made the proposal. Its Secretary General, Josef Bugeja, stated that compelling workers to join a trade union of their choice would ultimately lead to the eradication of precarious work. [1] The other general trade union, Voice of the Workers (UĦM) was not in complete agreement with this proposal, fearing that it might be in breach of the right to freedom of association. Its CEO, Josef Vella, proposed a mechanism that would oblige non-union members to pay a fee whenever they benefit from a collective agreement negotiated by a trade union. [2] The three main employer organisations in Malta – the Malta Employers’ Association (MEA), the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry (MCCEI) and the Malta Hotel and Restaurants Association (MHRA) – opposed the implementation of such a measure. Joe Farrugia, Director General of the MEA, compared this policy of mandatory membership to a force-feeding exercise based on a ‘paternalistic approach that dictates to rational people and organisations that membership is good for them whether they agree to it or not'.[3] Compulsory membership, according to a joint statement by the employer organisations, diminishes individual freedom by removing the right not to form part of any organisation. They insisted that freedom of association implies freedom to dissociate oneself from either trade union membership or employer organisations.

First collective agreement for police officers

On 9 October 2018, a collective agreement was signed between the government and the two trade unions representing police officers: the Malta Police Association (MPA) and the Police Officers’ Union. This agreement is historic, as it is the first collective agreement signed by trade union officials representing police officers since they were set up three years ago.

Up to March 2015, police officers were prohibited from joining a trade union under the 2002 Employment and Industrial Relations Act. Similarly, Maltese law relating to police force operations prohibited police officers from joining trade unions or any similar organisation other than the MPA. This association, chaired by the Police Commissioner, aims to promote the welfare and professional efficiency of its members by representing their views on matters such as hours of duty, leave, pay and allowances, pensions and other conditions of service and rules of discipline in general. Although in its operations the MPA appears to incorporate many activities performed by a trade union, it was still considered a corporate body rather than an association of workers capable of making agreements and taking legal action.

It was on this principle that, in February 2015, amendments were made to the Police Act to give police officers the freedom to join an association of their choice. These amendments clearly state that ‘members of the Force shall be entitled to join a trade union’ and that these regulations ‘prevail over what is provided in or under any other law with regard to any matter concerning industrial and employment relations’. The amendments deny police officers the right to strike.

The collective agreement includes improved disturbance allowances and overtime rates, and a one-step rise in the pay grade for constables and inspectors in the 20-tier salary scale governing pay in the civil service. The 46-hour week, which was a contentious issue, has been reduced to 40 hours. The Principal Permanent Secretary said that this agreement was based on decisions that had been negotiated by trade unions, the government and the ‘police top brass’. [4]

Commentary

With regard to mandatory trade union membership, there is no case law about the freedom to dissociate which could guide legislators to implement the suggestion made by the Prime Minister. It is thus very unlikely that this proposal will be implemented in the near future.

The collective agreement signed by the trade unions representing police officers is likely to motivate workers employed in disciplined forces – such as prison wardens, soldiers, and members of the Civil Corps – to seek a similar agreement.


Footnotes

  1. ^ Malta Today (2018), General Workers’ Union asks social partners to discuss proposal for obligatory union membership , 5 November
  2. ^ Times of Malta (2018), Collective bargaining services should not be free – UĦM , 7 December
  3. ^ Times of Malta (2018), Force-fed membership , 12 November
  4. ^  Times of Malta (2018), Police get first ever collective agreement, shorter week and a pay rise , 15 October

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