Malta: Increase in industrial disputes

Industrial action in Malta flared up again in the first quarter of 2015, after a relatively peaceful period between 2012 and 2014. Three disputes were caused by litigation among the trade unions about recognition. The others were about conditions of work and the process of negotiation. Although these disputes did not cause major turbulence, they unsettled industrial relations.

Background

Industrial relations in Malta have been relatively calm during the last three years. Only two instances of industrial action were reported in 2012, involving around 565 workers and resulting in a loss of around 90 working days. There were no strikes in 2013; the only industrial action being a lock-out affecting seven workers. The figures for 2014 have not yet been published, but local newspapers report only minor incidents of industrial unrest. One such was the decision by lecturers at the University of Malta to withhold students’ final examination marks, following a directive from the Malta Union of Teachers (MUT) and the Union of Malta Academic Staff Association (UMASA).

Unions fight over members

In the first quarter of 2015, some disputes, caused by litigation between two trade unions over recognition, led either to partial industrial action or to a threat of such action. The standard practice is that a union is entitled to sole recognition in a workplace if it has more than 50% of the employees as its members. However, on three occasions, disputes between two trade unions, each claiming to have more than 50% of employees as members, have led to industrial action.

One of these cases involved the General Workers' Union (GWU) at Malta’s international port, Freeport, in a dispute with the Malta Workers Union (UHM). The Secretary-General of the GWU, Tony Zarb, claimed at a press conference that most of the workforce belonged to the GWU and that documents showing this had been sent to the Freeport management.

The GWU accused the management of deliberately failing to take the necessary steps to hold a verification exercise in order to decide which union had a majority of members. However, the UHM said that it was the recognised union and the verification process should be held according to normal procedures and law.

The GWU then ordered its members to protest with a go-slow and by working to rule, but withdrew these orders after a meeting with management. The case was referred to the Industrial Tribunal, which ordered a verification exercise to be conducted by the Department of Industrial and Employment Relations not later than 5 June 2015. The employees, who are entitled to a secret ballot, must be full-time workers and registered with one of the two unions claiming majority of membership, namely the GWU or UHM.

In another case, at Malta Public Transport Services, UHM claimed that most bus drivers were its members. However, when its demand for a verification exercise was prohibited by a court order, at the request of GWU, the UHM ordered a two-hour strike by bus drivers on 13 March 2015.

In another dispute over representation of workers in childcare, between the UHM and the Malta Union of Teachers (MUT), the court ruled it did not have the powers to decide which union enjoyed majority support and ruled that a verification exercise should be carried out among childcare workers.

In March 2015, the UHM ordered government childcare workers to report for work two hours late, to protest about health and safety conditions and because the agreed ratio of carers to children was not being observed. The UHM also ordered paramedics’ aides at Malta’s Mater Dei Hospital not to process blood tests before being passed to professionals at the laboratory. According to the Times of Malta, The union claimed that the government was adopting delaying tactics in negotiations over a dispute involving the employment of further staff. 

Prime Minister intervenes

In the banking sector, the Malta Union of Bank Employees (MUBE) ordered a ban on communications and overtime, claiming that the HSBC Malta bank had unilaterally withdrawn a collective agreement. The union complained about ‘unacceptable, low increases in salary and mediocre bonus awards’ and when the bank did not come up with any new proposals, it then instructed its members not to serve the bank’s clients. This escalated into a strike which was supported by the GWU. This ended after four days, following intervention by the Prime Minister and the Malta Employers Association (MEA). However, no amicable solution has yet been found, with MUBE stating that no progress has been made during the conciliation meetings.

Problems also arose when Air Malta decided to cut costs by serving passengers a snack (which they would have to pay for) instead of an in-flight meal from 1 January 2015. However, this meant that cabin crew were also denied their meal, and the Union of Cabin Crew (UCC)  ordered its members not to offer the trolley service. However, the matter was resolved when Air Malta offered its cabin crew a commission on the sales from the trolley service.

Commentary

These disputes did not destabilise the industrial relations system, and could be defined as merely bickering. However they have awakened and unsettled the actors involved in industrial relations.

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