The state of the Union and the road ahead
It was in 1966 when a group of civil servants decided to join forces and form a union which nowadays is known as UHM Voice of the Workers. The ultimate objective of the union’s founders led by Secretary General Maurice Agius and President Salvino Spiteri was to safeguard workers’ rights and be a catalyst for change.
A fundamental principle which guided this union throughout these 55 years is that it was never shackled by any political affiliations. This does not mean that it stayed on the fence fearing a backlash. Indeed, there were times when it felt it could no longer remain neutral like the EU membership debate, the fight against corruption and the utility tariffs price hikes. Let us not forget that the union’s first major dispute was over the conditions of public sector employees during the Nationalist administration led by Gorg Borg Olivier. The turbulent 1970s followed which were characterised by Dom Mintoff’s antagonistic approach and the threat posed to the free trade union movement by the ‘marriage’ between the Labour Party in government and the General Workers’ Union.
This brief historic overview is important to understand the spirit of the forthcoming 33rd National Congress in which UHM will not only take stock of the state of the Union but decide on the key milestones ahead for the next five years.
Originally scheduled for last year, this event had to be postponed in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since the last Congress (or General Conference as it used to be called prior to the statute amendments enacted last July) the employment scenario has changed drastically and with it the strengths and weaknesses of the economy. The active labour market policy piloted by UHM around a decade ago has achieved its targets as unemployment has gone down to record levels, and female participation gone from among the worst in the EU to the top levels. However, there are new challenges on the horizon. The need to find a better work-life balance is a major issue as more and more working parents are struggling to find some quality time for themselves and their loved-ones.
Precarious employment is also another major challenge coupled with new forms of jobs which are circumventing the traditional worker-employee relationship thus creating grey areas which ultimately pose serious risks of exploitation. One such example is the platform economy and to a less extent Government’s insistence on outsourcing core functions to third parties.
Unions in general also need to take stock of the situation to be able to face their own existential threats amid worrying signs not only in Malta but also globally of a decline in union membership.
It is with this frame of mind that UHM Voice of the Workers will be convening its highest organ to map the way forward and outline the various achievements made over the last six years ranging from collective agreements, individual cases and policy proposals.
The 33rd National Congress will lay the vision going forward on how the country should respond to the challenges in line with its mission – from the active labour market policy and the online portal, to the study on the feasibility of reducing the 40-hour week and mandatory union membership for low-income workers. This approach encapsulates the slogan being adopted for this congress – the voice of work – the winning voice.