Industrial relations

Malta: Latest developments in working life Q3 2019

The issue of mandatory trade union membership, a dispute in the airline industry leading to civil and legal action, and a temporary solution to the teacher shortage are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in Malta in the third quarter of 2019.

Mandatory trade union membership under discussion again

The issue of mandatory trade union membership, which was raised in the last quarter of 2018, [1] came back into focus in the third quarter of 2019.

In its 2020 pre-budget document, the secretary general of the General Workers’ Union (GWU), Josef Bugeja, suggested that trade union membership should be mandatory for all workers. He asserted that the implementation of such a measure would be an effective way of eliminating precarious employment. This proposal was widely acclaimed by the Maltese trade union associations during a meeting of the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development (MCESD), which is the tripartite national institution for social dialogue. However, there was a backlash in the press against the implementation of such a proposal. Some commentators, including legal experts, stated that such an obligatory measure could be a breach of the freedom of association.

In response, the GWU acknowledged the freedom of workers to opt out of joining a trade union. However, it remarked that in exercising this right, non-union workers are benefiting from trade union measures without having to make any financial contributions to the unions. The GWU therefore suggested that non-unionised workers should show solidarity with union members by paying a fraction of the trade union membership fee. This payment would be deposited into a common trade union fund to be used for the benefit of all workers. [2]

The Ministry for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties stated that the issue would need to be discussed further, due to the lack of a unanimous agreement and the doubt cast about the legality of the proposal.

Airline challenges legality of industrial action

The Airline Pilots Association (ALPA), which represents Air Malta pilots, ordered its members to report half an hour late to work as of 1 July as part of a dispute with the airline. According to a statement by Minister for Tourism Konrad Mizzi, the cause of the dispute is a guarantee of €700,000 that ALPA claimed the government had agreed to pay the pilots as part of an early retirement scheme. ALPA wanted a guarantee that this would be paid even if the airline became insolvent and ceased to operate. ALPA also claimed that Air Malta had breached the collective agreement multiple times.

Air Malta responded by saying that ALPA’s claims were false and that union officials had concocted them once it was realised that its demands were unacceptable. The airline also questioned the legality of ALPA’s industrial action and submitted a plea to the civil court for a temporary injunction. On 23 July, the civil court upheld a request by Air Malta and ordered ALPA to stop the industrial action.

Air Malta insisted that the court ruling implied the industrial action was illegal, as the claims made by the union did not constitute a trade dispute as defined in the provisions of the Employment and Industrial Relations Act. On the basis of this argument, the airline filed a court case in which it demanded that the union pay for the damages caused by the industrial action.[3]

Government proposes solution to teacher shortage

The long-running dispute between the Malta Union of Teachers (MUT) and the Ministry for Education and Employment about teacher workloads continued in the third quarter of 2019. [4] The union argues that the workload of some teachers is exceeding the level stipulated in the collective agreement, while the ministry blames the shortage of teachers for the situation.

To overcome this issue, the ministry announced its intention to recruit foreign teachers and issued a call for retired Maltese teachers to be reinstated. The MUT stated that the employment of foreign teachers is a short-term solution and that a long-term solution is needed to address the teacher shortage. [5] Commissioner for Education Charles Caruana Carabez stated that the measures announced by the government were meant to plug the existing gaps. He added that the problem stemmed from poor conditions and relatively low pay.

Commentary

Anecdotal evidence suggests that mandatory trade union membership could be an effective tool to combat precarious employment, particularly in sectors where there is a tradition of non-unionisation and workers are therefore not covered by a collective agreement. However, the argument that workers should have the right to choose is also powerful. Because Malta has no test case law about this issue to act as a guide for legislators, the Ministry for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties is taking a cautious approach to the matter.

In contrast, the legal action taken by Air Malta to halt industrial action by pilots and seek to recover damages can be viewed as a test case challenging the immunity from civil action granted to unions to engage in industrial action in furtherance of a trade dispute as provided for by the law.


Footnotes

  1. ^ Eurofound (2018), Malta: Latest working life developments Q4 2018 .
  2. ^ Times of Malta (2019), GWU’s planned mandatory union membership allows paid opt-out , 22 August.
  3. ^ Malta Today (2019), ALPA must also be accountable for its actions – Air Malta, 29 August.
  4. ^ Eurofound (2019), Malta: Latest developments in working life Q2 2019 .
  5. ^ Times of Malta (2019), Teachers' union says 'not acceptable' to rely on foreign teachers , 20 September.

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