Workers’ Day – a welcome return but what next?
Following a two-year hiatus Workers’ Day is being marked once again through mass events ranging from traditional demonstrations, rallies and in the case of UHM Voice of the Workers a half-day conference. Unfortunately, Covid-19 meant that this celebration either had to be cancelled or else relegated to some form of virtual event. Workers’ Day is something which ought to be celebrated collectively. After all, this is what trade unions are all about – uniting to safeguard workers conditions and bring forward positive changes. Hence, the very fact that we have returned to some sort of normality should be cherished and taking this development for granted is a mistake.
Indeed, the biggest threat to trade unions arises when they start detaching themselves from the grass roots. Like any other modern organisation, they need to evolve without losing sight of the very reason why they were established. Unfortunately, the pandemic has dealt a serious blow to this aspect, as opportunities for face-to-face interaction with workers and onsite visits were greatly restricted. Hence, trade unionists need to step up efforts to make up for the lost ground of these two years.
Being close to the grassroots conveys a strong message in the fight against precarious employment, exploitation and better occupational health and safety. The construction industry remains one of the biggest concerns as it accounts for the highest share of fatalities and serious injuries at work, mostly due to fall from heights. Another sector whose reputation leaves much to be desired in terms of conditions of work, is the gig economy. Despite repeated pledges by the government that it was regulating this sector, evidence on the ground still suggests that couriers face a race against time on Maltese roads to try and secure as many deliveries as possible in a bid to raise a decent wage. This is coming at a cost to their personal safety and that of others.
Meanwhile, other issues which had been there prior to the pandemic are yet to be dealt with. These include the over reliance on outsourcing by State entities, which is fuelling situations whereby workers doing the same work are being paid differently. To date, government keeps insisting on this model rather than leading by example. Last October government promised – for the second time since 2016 – it would be implementing the UHM’s proposal for the setting up of an online portal containing employment contracts and templates to fight common abuses at the workplace. Sadly, to date there has been no mention when this will become reality.
Another issue which needs addressing is that regarding trade union membership. The matter is of deep concern as workers most prone for exploitation – those with low-income – are most likely to find the biggest obstacles to join a trade union. Until recently the two major political parties were open to the idea of considering mandatory membership as a means to safeguard the rights of these workers. On a political level this proposal seems to be dead in the water in the wake of the fierce objections raised by the employers in the last general election campaign. While UHM never advocated mandatory membership across the board but for low-income earners only, we need to know what alternatives are being proposed to combat abuse. Many a time, certain commitments and pledges ended up being just lip service. Let us hope that Workers’ Day 2022 celebrations will not just be remembered for making a comeback but for heralding a new start.