Any trade union aiming to be of service to its members without fear or favour should strive to be autonomous. If this is not the case, it has no freedom of will and there might be circumstances in which its actions might be shackled.

In the Maltese context such status is very hard to achieve. Revenue from membership is rather limited due to the economies of scale dictated by the fact that the labour market is limited to 230,000 of whom a quarter are foreigners. Traditionally, the latter are less prone to join a union as their employment might be temporary or else they fear such move could irk their employers to the point that their work permit would not be renewed. Unions, who embrace members from various sectors rather than specialised areas must also cope with the running expenses of their own staff and offices. Such problem is not encountered by in-house unions in the public sector as they can operate within the infrastructures of their workplace.  

Coming back to the original argument, complete autonomy from the government is not possible in the Maltese context. A case in point is the recruitment of full-timers to increase the union’s capacity building. It transpires that if that employee is on the books of a government or State entity, their salary is paid by the State. While this might sound utopic for countries were trade unions have struggled to find fertile land to thrive, it is also a double-edged sword. If government decides to revisit such policy it could result in a union’s financial meltdown, as the payroll is one of their biggest recurrent expenditures. Government’s recent unilateral decision to decrease the number of employees which it can release from a State entity to a union by 12.5 per cent, does not bode well at all.

Moreover, government’s role as gatekeeper with respect to funding also applies to EU programmes and initiatives which is another possible source of funding for specific projects. This is simply due to the fact that such grants, more often than not are managed and centralised through government entities.

The third scenario, whereby government’s decisions greatly influence unions is the process of recognition in State entities which is a crucial aspect in their quest to increase membership. Without such recognition, a union’s options in terms of collective bargaining are very limited.

Consequently, even if a union manages to be financially autonomous, there are other aspects such as capacity building on which it still must rely on government. Such situation calls for a mechanism to regulate all the above in line with the principle that social dialogue can only be successful if the three major players – employers, government, and unions – are at a level playing field