Trade union membership stable despite current crisis

The latest annual report from the Registrar of Trade Unions found that membership of Maltese trade unions had increased by 0.6% compared with the previous year. The General Workers’ Union and United Workers’ Union account for over 80% of trade union members. Overall it appears the trade union movement is coping adequately with the changes in the labour market in Malta. The Malta Union of Teachers reported a significant decrease in members following a review of its records.


According to the annual report published by the Registrar of Trade Unions on 30 September 2011, trade union membership in Malta increased by 483 in absolute terms between 1 July 2009 and 30 June 2011. This represents an increase of 0.6% over the previous year. Based on the figure of 148,546 for the total number of gainfully employed people in May 2011 given in a news release from the National Statistics Office (NSO), the Maltese trade union density is 57.7%.

However, a number of trade unions failed to send their returns to the Registrar. It is normal practice that such missing figures are included as ‘additions by late returns’ in the following year’s report. Based on the numbers declared in 2009–2010 for the membership of these unions, adding these to the total gives an increase in membership of 1,569 (1.8%) and a density of 58.4%.

Another factor to take into account is that the membership of the General Workers’ Union (GWU) and the United Workers’ Union (UHM) includes 11,029 pensioners. It is probable that most of these pensioners are not active in the labour market. Deducting this number from the total given the annual report gives a ratio of Maltese trade union membership to the total number people in gainful employment of 50.3%.

The Malta Union of Teachers (MUT) registered a significant decrease in its membership of 468 people over the previous year, which is equivalent to 6%. MUT stated in its return to the Registrar that the drop was due to the removal from its records of a number of members who had left the teaching profession and failed to notify the union. This statement by the MUT may have been intended to rebut any claims that the decrease in its membership was due to its withdrawal as an affiliate of the Confederation of Malta Trade Unions (CMTU).

Apart from this, the figures do not reveal any new trends. GWU is still the largest trade union with more than 50% of trade union membership. A recent and aggressive campaign to recruit new members must have been successful because GWU increased its membership by 1,427 (3.4%) over the previous year. The increase is evenly distributed over all but one (Energy, Chemical and Printing) of its sections.

Malta’s second largest trade union and the GWU’s main rival, UHM, registered an increase of 485 members. Its biggest group, with 6,023 members (22.3%), is its government employees section.

The dominance of GWU and UHM in the Maltese industrial relations system can be gauged by the fact that the combined membership of the two trade unions amounts to 82% of Malta’s total trade union membership.


The increase registered in the membership of Maltese trade unions is not matched by an increase in employment and, despite the increase in the total number of members, trade union density has been registering a slight decline. The decline of the manufacturing industry, the substantial reductions of jobs in the public sector and the closure of Malta Shipyards Ltd must have been a setback to the Maltese trade unions, because these three sectors were traditionally highly unionised.

Sub-contracting, which has become standard practice in public entities and large companies, may also have had a negative effect as it has proved very difficult for trade unions to recruit members among workers employed in sub-contracting companies.

Moreover, increase in employment in Malta is occurring in sectors such as financial intermediation and E-betting, which have not traditionally been areas in which trade unions have influence.

However, the fact that, despite this new economic scenario, trade union density is still over 50% indicates that the Maltese trade union movement is coping adequately with the changes occurring in the country’s labour market.

Saviour Rizzo, Centre for Labour Studies

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