Last week more than 1,300 healthcare workers ranging from emergency ambulance responders to professionals stepped up industrial action having felt that government was trying to take them for a ride.

Contrary to the impression given in some quarters who tried to play down this dispute, UHM Voice of the Workers did not take this course of action lightly. What is at stake here is the workers’ right to enrol in a trade union, their right to benefit from collective bargaining and government’s obligation to implement what was agreed.

In this case government is reneging on promises made in writing to allied healthcare professionals in September last year and to Steward Health Care Employees in November. Meanwhile, emergency ambulance responders are not even being given the opportunity to make their representations for a new collective agreement.  Far from being frivolous, such request was made on the strength of the fact that UHM Voice of the Workers had won official recognition in January 2019.  Failure to accept this principle means that the whole point of a trade union fighting the right to represent workers would be in question if not entirely pointless. Government has also tried to play dirty by abusing of the union’s good will after the latter suspended industrial action to start talks, only for the government to say it had no intention to budge.

In the case of Steward, government’s refusal to implement what it had agreed – to absorb employees and give them the same employment conditions of their colleagues on government books – means that it is perpetrating precarious employment. Such goes against the principle of equal pay for equal work.

Government is also trying to shift the goalposts for allied health care professionals by trying to give a different interpretation to the seniority mechanism as established in the agreement in order to deny what is due to these professionals.

Ironically, this is the same government which for months was full of praise (but nothing more) for the sterling work being done by COVID-19 front liners. But now that it is being called upon to put its money where its mouth is, it has vanished in thin air.   

As UHM CEO Josef Vella remarked it would be wrong to treat this dispute as one which is of concern to the health sector only. Government’s conduct could set a dangerous precedent whereby either employees are denied the opportunity to negotiate a better deal, or if this hurdle is cleared, they would nonetheless face a brick wall to redeem what was agreed in writing. This is a black day for social dialogue which is based primarily on trust. Seems like government’s maxim is tails I win, heads you lose.