Fighting against workers’ exploitation and abuse has always been one of the main existential functions of trade unions. Once these challenges start to be addressed, unions can start looking at improving working conditions, for unions do not exist only to intervene whenever there is a legal breach but also to raise standards across the board, which ultimately result in a better quality of life.

Often abuses start when the difference between employers, employees and self-employed start getting blurred.  There is also the misconception that unions only care about their sectorial interests and consequently, there are no benefits for those who are not enrolled. Non-members may still benefit from better wages and the reduction of income inequalities. Unions help win progressive policies that benefit all workers. Conversely, where unions and collective bargaining is weak, employers and their allies are more successful at pushing through policies and legislation which may not be in the interest of workers. In short, a strong labour movement protects workers, reduces disparities, and strengthens our democracy.

Trade unions are a powerful tool to fight exploitation and the black economy. Low-income workers have little bargaining power and consequently are more prone to be victims of abuse. UHM believes in adopting a paternalistic approach, just like in other aspects of live which we take for granted. This is why we believe in mandatory trade union membership for low-income workers.

Dealing with exploitation is not feasible through a one-size-fits-all approach. Workers who are well paid and whose skills are in demand, cannot be compared to those with basic skills seeking jobs for which there is a long waiting list. The former have bargaining power to negotiate good salaries and seek greener pastures if the going gets tough.  However, somebody with limited skills whose only openings are jobs for which there is a vast supply will be in a vulnerable position. Should they flag any abuse, they are most likely to lost their job as their replacement would be knocking on the door. Unfortunately, low-income workers are often treated as a commodity. It is within this context that UHM is advocating mandatory trade union membership. Just like motorists are obliged by law to insure their vehicle, UHM is advocating that low-income workers join a union of their choice as a deterrent against abuse. Hence, membership is a form of insurance for vulnerable workers.

From a legal perspective there have been claims that such proposal would be in breach of the right to association. However, this is not the case. This is no lobbying for a trade union shop. Workers would have the right to join whatever trade union they like and if none of those on offer satisfy their needs, they can always opt to set up a house union. However, should there be somebody who would nonetheless still refuse to join a trade union, they would have the option to pay the equivalent of the membership fee into a special fund for training. Such arrangement would also address the issue of free riders – non-members who benefit from better conditions through collective agreements negotiated by unions. If the problem of free riders is not addressed there might be a time when collective bargaining is pushed towards extinction… and with it workers’ bargaining power.

Given that to date, success in this fight has been very limited, time is ripe to start seriously considering this idea for low-wage workers.