Controversy over appointment of new industrial tribunal

The appointment of six new chairs to Malta’s Industrial Tribunal panel has caused controversy. After winning the March 2013 election, the new Labour government asked all the chairs of the tribunal to resign. This is accepted practice when a new party takes power in Malta, but many of the new chairs had strong trade union links and there were complaints from employers’ groups. Employers were also unhappy about the way in which former chairs were asked to resign their positions.

Background

When Malta’s Labour Party, the Partit Laburista, took power after the March 2013 general election, the chairs of the country’s Industrial Tribunal panel were asked to resign by the Ministry for Social Dialogue. The Minister, Helena Dalli, stressed that the request for the resignations was standard practice whenever there was change in government.

Six new chairs were appointed, while five of the panel were retained. One of the panel members refused to resign.

The Malta Employers’ Association (MEA) was unhappy with the appointments, saying that a majority of the new panel had links with the General Workers Union (GWU). The Ministry said that despite the changes made, the tribunal retained its autonomy and independence. The GWU accused MEA of stigmatising former GWU employees or members.

Powers of the Industrial Tribunal

The Employment and Industrial Relations Act (EIRA 2002), which regulates employment and industrial relations in Malta, makes provision for the establishment of an industrial tribunal.

The tribunal has the exclusive jurisdiction to consider and decide all cases of alleged unfair dismissal. The Act also gives the parties involved in a trade dispute the right to request the government minister to refer a dispute to a tribunal for settlement. The minister is obliged to refer any disputes to the tribunal within 21 days of the date of the notification or request. The tribunal’s decision on a dispute is binding on both sides.

During the proceedings, the tribunal has the same powers as a Civil Court. It has the right to summon witnesses and ask those involved to take the oath. It has the power to call expert witnesses if it feels they might have specialist knowledge relevant to a particular case.

The chairs of the tribunal are chosen from a panel of people and are appointed for three years. However, they are officially appointed by the Prime Minister, which gives incoming governments the right to make changes. This panel, consisting of not more than 15 people, is appointed after consultation with the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development (MCESD), the national tripartite body for social dialogue.

Resignation of the tribunal’s chairs

When Minister Dalli asked for the chairs to resign, all but one complied with the request. Franco Masini claimed that as he was an occupant of a quasi-judicial office, it was not appropriate to ask him to stand down.

The resignation of six chairs was accepted, but the MEA expressed its serious concerns about the composition of the new panel, saying that the dominance of members who had an affinity with the GWU, Malta's largest trade union, meant that employers were under-represented. MEA President Arthur Micallef said Masini’s refusal to resign ‘highlighted a fundamental feature of the law and an important principle’. He added that the power of the minister to dismiss panel members, under the pretext of varying the composition of the panel, must be redefined.

The Malta Chamber of SMEs (GRTU) said that it was also disappointed with the way the chairs were asked to resign. It said some were expected to resign even though they had pending cases to deal with.

Government’s response

Minister Dalli responded to the employer groups’ criticism by saying the new chairs came from a variety of fields of expertise, and had all been chosen on the basis of their competence. Their union affiliations were not a factor. The Ministry for Social Dialogue and Consumer Affairs said the autonomy and independence that lay at the core of the industrial tribunal system had not been influenced by the appointment of new chairpersons.

GWU Deputy Secretary-General Michael Parnis, meanwhile, said the MEA’s criticism of the new panel was ‘stigmatising’ former employees of the union and those who had some connection with it. He said the new members of the panel had gathered a large amount of experience through their exposure to industrial relations issues. He also claimed employers had made use of the services of these experts, in some cases as consultants.

Parnis added that the GWU, despite being the largest trade union in Malta, had always been under-represented on the panels.

The General Secretary of the Union Ħaddiema Magħqudin (UĦM), Joseph Vella, said his greatest concern was not the composition of the tribunal itself but rather delays in handing down judgements.

Commentary

The chairpersons of the Industrial Tribunal, while having the same powers vested in the civil court, do not have the same security of tenure enjoyed by magistrates. The minister in replacing six chairs acted within the parameters of the law. The question that arises is whether the law should be redefined so as to dispel any doubts about the independence and autonomy of the industrial tribunal system.

Saviour Rizzo, Centre for Labour Studies

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