“There needs to be the political will to address the current shortcomings of the job market. There must be the determination to reform the education system to make sure that it can furnish workers with the skills and knowledge they need within today’s and tomorrow’s economy.”  

So said Josef Vella, Chief Executive of UĦM Voice of the Workers in a speech he gave at a seminar entitled Shaping of labour relations through workers’ organisations – which factors have a direct influence on professional life? organised by UĦM Voice of the Workers in collaboration with the European Centre for Workers’ Questions (EZA).  This event was held at Cavalieri Hotel, St Julians on Thursday 6 and Friday 7 December 2018. 

The session on Thursday morning started with an introduction by Jesmond Bonello, the Director of UĦM Voice of the WorkersHe said that any changes at the workplace should be implemented following consultation with the workers and their representatives. If this is not done it can lead to worker demotivation and, even, depression. While praising the developments in technology that we hear about, he appealed for training for the workers. The Director of UĦM Voice of the Workers added that the biggest challenge faced by each union is highlighting the advantages of each collective agreement. He added that unions need to continually adapt themselves to changes in the international economy to continue to evolve. 

Josef Mozolewski, the Vice President of EZA who is from Poland spoke about the work and projects carried out by the Centre this year. He praised the UĦM Voice of the Workers for its commitment to address the challenge of digitalisation of today’s workplace. He said that this year EZA dealt with a number of issues among them immigration and it discussed programmes regarding education and skills and how they link in with the job market. He spoke about how the renowned Polish organisation Solidarnosc has continued to work to better the quality of life in the country.  The Vice President of EZA said that it is true that society today is facing new challenges, but these should not dishearten us. 

Karin Schӧnpflug, from the Institute of Advanced Studies in Austria, spoke about trade unions in a changing world. She said that Austrian youths do not discuss politics on social media while in Malta the situation is quite different. She explained how traditional jobs are disappearing and the members of European trade unions are getting older. 

Dr. James Calleja, the Chief Executive of the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST) said, among other things, that without workers with specialised skills the country will struggle to find workers in certain sectors.  Dr. Calleja said that workers today are educated and education has changed workplaces into centres that give persons dignity. On the other hand, there is still a great deal to do to close the gap between manual workers and workers with a tertiary education.  Dr. Calljea said that, notwithstanding the modern era we are living in, trade unions need to keep defending workers’ rights. He asked whether trade unions are still fashionable or are workers’ committees replacing trade unions? He said that the gains made by universities have not yet been matched in the vocational training sector. Dr. Calleja said that unions can contribute to strengthen areas of education. He asked how robots are going to work when it comes to union membership. Dr. Calleja sees a number of roles for trade unions, among them, to obtain funds and act as mediators between the working world and the world of education and vocational training.  He also sees trade unions as partners with industry so that workers can better themselves. He said that trade unions should be the motivators behind both formal and informal education. 

The seminar continued with a discussion where the issue of membership of trade unions was mentioned. Josef Vella, the Chief Executive of UĦM Voice of the Workers proposed the model of an agency shop, that is, a system where the members who are not in a union pay a fee to the union to negotiate their work contract. The money would go into a central fund to finance research initiatives and other work related to statistics related to trade unions. The Chief Executive of UĦM Voice of the Workers said that the principle here is that if you want a service you need to pay for that service. This way, abuse by free riders can be controlled. He said that it would be better to address free riding than turn to the state for help. 

Josef Vella once again spoke about precarious work, an issue that the UĦM Voice of the Workers been speaking about for the last four years. He explained the proposal put forward by this union that all work contracts be placed on a portal through which a copy is automatically made available to the worker. The aim behind this proposal is to ‘wed’ technology with the law to increase enforcement and control abuse. 

Dr. Matthew Brincat, from the Malta Employment Lawyers Association (MELA) said that workers should not be forced to join a union. He does not agree with the UĦM’s proposal of the portal and instead proposed blacklisting those companies that do not abide by the law. 

Dr. Martin Balzan, the President of the Malta Confederation of Trade Unions (CMTU) and the President of the Medical Association of Malta (MAM) said that voluntary membership gives members the opportunity to exercise their influence. Dr. Balzan said that there should be official statistics on how salaries are moving from one sector to another. 

National MEP Roberta Metsola said that today Europe needs to ensure that there are more jobs that maintain human dignity and safeguard human right. She said that there needs to be more enforcement against those who abuse workers and exploit them. Roberta Metsola said that unions need to adapt to face the future. In spite of the fact that today’s technology is bringing up a number fo challenges, the Nationalist MEP said that we need to keep the individual at the  centre of all we do and incentivise them with training. Above all, added Roberta Metsola, the unions need to be the guardians of the strengthening of society.   

In another session of the seminar, John Mallia, Managing Director of MediaCoop spoke, among other things, about the fact that solidarity today is mainly being expressed on social media. He said that a number of new technological tools are being created that influence what is happening on the job market. 

Mara  Edelj, the President of BOFOS in Serbia said, among other things, that young workers today do not want to stay in one job until retirement. She said that we need to define the role of trade unions, that is, they need to continue to base their work on solidarity and be ready for changes for lifelong learning. 

Veselina Starcheva, from the Confederation of Work PODKREPA of Bulgaria said that the organisation she is a member of works to keep abreast of advances in technology and how they affect the worker. She said that unions today should better understand the workers through the lens of the changes that are happening on the job market. Maria Pedrova, also from PODKREPA, added that there are efforts in place to ensure that digitalisation does not affect the job market. 

Andreas Gjecaj, the General Secretary of FCB, OGB from Austria said that attention needs to be paid to the fact that digitilisation is expanding at a very rapid rate. Anton Jansen, from the police trade union ACP, spoke about different generations of workers who all adapted to the call to commit themselves within a job market that is diversifying. 

Katarzyna Kaca and Karol Nosal, from Solidarnosc in Poland explained the situation of the job market in Poland. They said that trade unions need to react to digitalisation that can result in social inequality. Mariana Lemos Martins, a representative of the Fidestra Junior of Portugal, said that in her country the trade unions are in the news when there is industrial upheaval. She said that from a young age people should be taught the importance of work. She said that the trade unions should visit more workplaces to understand the thoughts, ideas and concerns of the workers. 

Jesmond Bonello, the Director of the UĦM Voice of the Workers, concluded the session on Thursday by saying that the unions should carry out more research. He said that in the last few years the UĦM has modernised itself and is adapting to the times. Jesmond Bonello said that if the union wants to give the best service possible it should also consider short term membership and professional marketing. 

The seminar continued on Friday 7 December with other interesting sessions. In his speech, Josef Vella, Chief Executive of UĦM Voice of the Workers said that, as a union, the UĦM Voice of the Workers asked for a debate to be held at the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development (MCESD) about current developments and how the job market will look in the next five to ten years. 

He asked how the increasing presence of foreign workers is impacting collective negotiation in the Maltese Islands. We also need to know what exactly the political direction of this government is with regard to the influx of immigrants from third countries. 

Josef Vella said that we are not aware of any exercise to forecast skills needs in Malta. What plans are there to correct skill discrepancies? Why is the education system in Malta struggling to address the discrepancy in skills? He said that the government wants to drastically reform strategies about work and education. Malta can look to the future with optimism as long as it has the courage and the political will to lead in a changing world. 

The Chief Executive of UĦM Voice of the Workers spoke about the impact of digitalisation on the job market. He said that technological change is one of the main factors that influences job markets, skills demand and supply as well as job structure. Josef Vella explained that the inequalities that can be created by technological change are of concern. 

The Chief Executive of UĦM Voice of the Workers said that social dialogue is necessary to ensure that digitalisation does not do any harm to working conditions or to the levels of service.  He said that the experts are forecasting that there will be 1.4 million workers in Europe by 2020. The World Economic Forum is predicting that 65 per cent of children who are currently attending primary school will end up doing jobs that do not yet exist. 

Josef Vella concluded that there needs to be more effort to strengthen the vocational education sector and higher education to ensure that we can face today’s technological reality. These efforts should also focus on refugees and irregular immigrants and their integration in the job market. 

Joseph F. X. Zahra, Director of Surge Advisory Malta said that we need to change the way we look at things and take initiative. He said that there is nothing wrong in saying that most changes happen in times of crisis. He asked about the role of unions in managing change and said that we need to strengthen trust among union members. One also asks however: are we sufficiently able to handle change? He also asked how organisations react to changes – are they arrogant, do they adapt, do they get trapped, do they act in a way that leaves a legacy?  If we want to look towards the future, we need to adapt. We need to change how we think – where will we be in the next few years? Solidarity and human relationships also need to be strengthened. He ended up by saying that  

a union needs to have more than one role and should not remain monolithic. Joseph F.X. Zahra said that we also need to emphasise ethics and values on the job market. We should focus on integrity, honesty, subsidiarity and solidarity instead of management of conflict. After all, education and accountability are crucial in the times we live in. 

Dr. Philip von Brockdorff, Head of the Department of Economy at the University of Malta and a representative of this union on the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) said that often the parties in government fall for globalisation, and for rich and powerful people. He said that globalisation is causing uncertainty among workers while precarious work is on the rise. All this is leading to inequality and the works are being exploited and paid very little. He referred to the recent case of the Libyan worker who fell seven storeys and died. The debate that followed the tragedy was not about the work that he was doing but on whether the video clip that was posted on social media should have been broadcast. He spoke about the situation of workers from third countries that, because of precarious pay, should be given attention and should be encouraged to join a union so that their rights could be safeguarded. The number of workers who are being paid precariously is rising and the unions need to reach migrant communities. “We do not want ghettoes. There should be integration of immigrants”, said Dr. von Brockdorff. Moreover, trade unions need to develop strategies that go beyond their role so that policies can be created. Trade unions need to find a balance between the economic and the social dimensions.  

The session continued with a video on the role of the UĦM Voice of the Workers in the trade union sector. 

The seminar concluded with a few words by Jesmond Bonello, Director of UĦM Voice of the Workers. He said that digitalisation is a common challenge faced by unions today. He referred to people from third countries who integrated and, even, joined a union. He said that though we cannot stop globalisation, we can make adjustments so that we are going in the right direction.