Union campaign targets precarious work

An intensive and sustained campaign has been waged by Malta’s General Workers’ Union against precarious work. The union has ‘named and shamed’ a number of companies which employs workers under precarious conditions. It has called for contracts to be terminated, and companies to be blacklisted and excluded from government contracts. A director of one security service provider targeted by the campaign has insisted his company was following government regulations.

Background

In April 2013, Malta’s General Workers’ Union (GWU) conducted a campaign against precarious work practices. The campaign was targeted mainly at companies in the cleaning sector and providers of security services.

As part of its campaign the union held a press conference in front of the buildings of a state hospital. The GWU alleged the company that had been given the job of providing cleaning services in the hospital by the Government of Malta was abusing its employees. Cleaners at the hospital, said the GWU, were not being paid for overtime work.

The union further alleged that the director of the company was putting pressure on his employees to sign a form saying they had received payment for the overtime and being threatened with dismissal if they refused. The alleged breach of rules and abuse of power were referred to the Department of Industrial and Employment Relations (DIER). Details were also sent to the Minister of Health, Godfrey Farrugia, whose portfolio includes the running of state hospitals.

Meeting with government

The issue of precarious work was raised during a meeting between the GWU and Helena Dalli, Minister for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties. The GWU delegates told the minister that the DIER needed more resources to deal adequately with this issue. The minister confirmed her commitment to addressing the problem and agreed to further talks with the union.

GWU Secretary General Tony Zarb called for the blacklisting of companies that were not adhering to standardised work practices, and their exclusion from future government contracts. He added that current contracts should be terminated with immediate effect where bad practice could be proven.

He said cases referred to civil courts tended to take a long time to settle and the aggrieved employees might lose interest during such a long process.

Named and shamed

In its bid to intensify and sustain the campaign, the GWU began to name companies they believed were paying employees less than Malta’s statutory minimum wage. This ‘name and shame’ approach by the union led to more cases of precarious working conditions being reported to the GWU by employees.

The management of one of the cleaning companies named made a voluntary commitment to fall in line with all the standardised work practices.

Security boss calls for regulation

However, the director of one security business accused of precarious work practices by the GWU insisted his company was doing nothing wrong and had followed standardised work practices. He suggested the setting up of regulatory body to scrutinise the operations of security operators and determine fair rates of pay for the industry.

He said that the rates for security work must be determined by the work being done. Security at museums, he argued, could not be treated in the same way as security within an airport. He suggested a regulatory body could stipulate specific rates of pay which bidders submitting tenders for security contracts would have to observe. Such a body would safeguard the interests of operators, workers, clients and unions.

He added that if precariousness was defined in terms of insecurity and uncertainty, then security service providers were also in a precarious situation. They depend on large corporations and state-owned or state-run entities all trying to get the lowest price for outsourced services as part of their cost-cutting measures.

Commentary

The GWU campaign against precarious work has been running for a long time, but this particular phase of the campaign has been much more intense and sustained.

This intensification occurred around the time Malta’s Labour Party (Partit Laburista) was voted into power with a powerful majority at the general election on 9 March 2013. Given its great affinity with the Labour Party, which had pledged in its manifesto to tackle the problem, the GWU may have felt that it was an opportune time to step up its precarious work campaigning.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, in his speech on 1 May 2013, said his government was considering blacklisting companies in breach of standardised work rules to deny them access to government contracts.

Saviour Rizzo, Centre for Labour Studies

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