Unions committed to fair treatment for immigrant workers

A European Union-funded project examining discrimination in the workplace has found that Maltese trade unions respond well to specific issues affecting immigrants. The report highlights union initiatives to ensure equal pay and conditions for immigrant employees and publicise the pressures they face in the labour market. It concludes, however, that unions are not formulating more general anti-discrimination strategies that might address such problems before they arise.


For 10 years a substantial number of undocumented immigrants have been arriving in Malta from sub-Saharan Africa. Crossing the Mediterranean, often from Libya, in search of a better life, they have generally been granted refugee status with temporary leave to stay on humanitarian grounds. They then try to find employment and many report that they are expected to accept poor working conditions and low pay.

This reinforces the belief among the Maltese that the presence of immigrant workers lowers wages and working conditions for everyone. There is also a view that immigrants have caused a surge in the labour supply which the small Maltese labour market cannot absorb.

A number of these immigrants were interviewed in May 2009 at the centre to which they have to report regularly to qualify for a subsistence grant. A profile compiled from these data, to be published in a report by the author of this update entitled The capacity of the Maltese labour market to absorb irregular immigrants, reveals that the majority were under 40 and keen to earn a living.

They had arrived at a time when, in order to comply with the requirements of the Maastricht Treaty, the Maltese government had to privatise its public utilities and reduce the size of the public sector. While this restructuring exercise was going on, the manufacturing sector was also in sharp decline. A large number of redundancies brought about a change in the structure of the Maltese labour market, increasing the vulnerability of certain categories of workers, especially those in lower ISCO scales. The general perception is that the arrival of so many immigrants has led to labour supply outstripping demand. The opportunity this offers employers to cut wages and pay less attention to working conditions may, the trade union feared, heighten workers’ vulnerability and increase precarious work.

Union attitudes to immigrant workers

Unions’ responses have tended to be cautious. However gdbAlthough information on the study is in the EWCO article you indicated, I suggest to include some general background information. Please insert the hyperlink to the report. the report analysing union anti-discrimination activity commented favourably on the attitudes of Maltese unions towards immigrant workers, reporting that two of the country’s biggest unions had actively fought for pay parity on behalf of a group of Indian nationals and nurses from elsewhere in the EU (MT1110029I).

The report also refers to a General Workers Union (GWU) policy paper highlighting the difficulties faced by immigrants trying to enter the labour market, and cites as an instance of good practice the GWU’s appointment of the former director of an immigrant lodging centre to liaise between employers and unions on behalf of immigrants. This made it possible for the union to focus exclusively on the issues of inclusion and protection of third country nationals, especially illegal immigrants.

The report also notes that the other large Maltese trade union, Union Ħaddiema Maghqudin (UĦM), was very supportive of immigrant workers.

However, the report concludes that Maltese trade unions do not seem to have wide-ranging strategies to combat general discrimination and that they seem preoccupied with the effect immigration may have on Maltese workers’ position in the labour market.


The EU report summarises the initiatives taken in the last three or four years, and before that Maltese trade unions had kept a very low profile on the issue of immigration and immigrant workers. The unions may now have realised that regularisation of employment conditions for immigrant workers will help maintain working standards and wages.

The Director General of the Malta Employers’ Association (MEA) Joseph Farrugia says that there are chronic labour shortages in many sectors of the Maltese economy which immigrants might adequately fill. The association favours regularisation of employment relations for immigrant workers as it would help eliminate most of the negative social effects in the informal economy which, according to the MEA secretary-general, ‘often results in unfair competition and puts legitimate business at a disadvantage’.

Whatever its rationale, this commitment by the unions and the employers to effective standard-setting for both Maltese and immigrant workers shows tangible evidence of fairness and equity.

Saviour Rizzo, Centre for Labour Studies

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