Unions’ role in combating workplace discrimination

An EU-funded study examined the role of Maltese trade unions in combating discrimination in the workplace on the grounds of race, disability, religion, sexual orientation and age. The study was based mostly on interviews with three of the largest unions about their policies and practices on anti-discrimination and diversity. The unions were aware of equality issues to a certain extent but did not seem to have specific strategies to combat discrimination in general.

About the project

A major element of the study, ‘Trade union practices on anti-discrimination and diversity’, involved the preparation of national state-of-the-art reports from all EU Member States plus three European Economic Area (EEA) countries (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway), three candidate countries (Croatia, Turkey and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) and one potential candidate (Serbia). The study was funded by the European Union Programme for Employment and Social Solidarity PROGRESS (2007–2013) and carried out by the Working Lives Research Institute (WLRI), London Metropolitan University on behalf of the European Commission, Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities.

The aim of the project was to analyse the roles taken by trade unions to fight all grounds of discrimination at the workplace and to highlight the most significant and innovative measures adopted by the unions. A European Commission report (1.74Mb PDF) details the project’s overall findings. This update describes the findings of the Malta report.

Malta study

The study involved qualitative interviews with three of the biggest unions in Malta:

  • General Workers’ Union (GWU);
  • United Workers’ Union (UHM);
  • Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses (MUMN).

It also includes the perspectives of the Malta’s equality body, the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality (NCPE), and the Malta Gay Rights Movement (MGRM).

Main findings

Race and ethnicity

The issue of race discrimination has attracted much attention in Malta in the last few years mostly because of the undocumented migrants who arrive by boat from the coast of North Africa. In line with national sentiment, unions in general seemed concerned that Maltese workers could face unfair competition from the migrants, most of whom work in the informal economy. There seemed to be less concern for the rights of the migrants.

The GWU had issued a paper on anti-discrimination on the grounds of race and ethnicity, and taken an active role in securing a proper wage for 55 Indian nationals who were being paid less than the minimum wage for their long working hours. The union was also talking to the government about the issue and planning projects to acquire EU funds to combat this form of discrimination. The UHM supported the rights of migrant workers and said it was making efforts to protect them. The MUMN was involved in a case relating to EU nurses who were being treated less favourably than Maltese nurses.

Of the three unions, the GWU seemed the most proactive, especially on the issue of ethnic and racial equality. It had appointed someone to work exclusively on the issue of inclusion and the protection of third country nationals, especially illegal migrants, in the work place

Religion and belief

None of the respondents gave priority to discrimination based on religion or belief. None of the unions was aware of any cases of discrimination on these grounds.


The unions seemed less concerned with the issue of discrimination on the grounds of disability, assuming it was not part of their remit because there is a government-funded agency, the National Commission for Persons with a Disability (KNPD), working in this area. Respondents agreed there was now more awareness of the issue of disabled persons at work, but not enough to ensure their integration into the labour market.

Sexual orientation

The issue of sexual orientation at the workplace was not given much attention by the unions interviewed. It was remarked that workers rarely go to the unions with complaints about this type of discrimination because it is a sensitive issue. The respondent from the MGRM, who lobbies for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights, claimed that transgender people are normally excluded from the workplace and are not even called for the interview, while harassment was common and ‘coming-out’ remained a difficult issue for gays and lesbians.

Age discrimination

The issue of age discrimination did not seem to be a priority for the three unions. Although both the GWU and the UHM have a separate section for retired workers and for youth, neither mentioned any social dialogue or activities in this area.


Although awareness about discrimination in the workplace seems to be increasing in Malta, unions may still need to be convinced about their role in ensuring an equitable and inclusive workforce. In times of economic crisis, unions are likely to feel that their priorities should be job retention and fair wages rather than combating various kinds of discrimination and promoting diversity.


European Commission (2010), Trade union practices on anti-discrimination and diversity. European Trade Union Anti-Discrimination and Diversity study: Innovative and significant practices in fighting discrimination and promoting diversity (1.74Mb PDF), Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.

Anna Borg, Centre for Labour Studies, University of Malta

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