A recent report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has concluded that the higher the number of employees covered by a collective agreement, the lower the wage differences. Moreover, it reinforced existing evidence that collective bargaining – the process of voluntary negotiation between one or more employers (or their organisations) and one or more workers’ organisations – can effectively reduce wage inequality, whether in an enterprise, sector or industry. The report also concluded that collective bargaining was important in mitigating the impact of the Covid-19 crisis

These conclusions are the main findings of the Social Dialogue Report 2022: Collective bargaining for an inclusive, sustainable and resilient recovery which is based on a review carried out across 80 countries at different levels of economic development and the legal and regulatory frameworks in 125 countries.

However, the underlying factor of this debate hinges on trade union membership. There can be no collective bargaining if workers do not enrol in a workers’ organisation. This consideration is of huge relevance to the Maltese context, in the wake of the challenges being faced by workers, especially those on low-income who are most prone to exploitation.  This is the point which UHM Voice of the Workers has been harping on for a number of years. During the recent Workers’ Day conference, UHM CEO Josef Vella noted that one of the solutions in the fight against abuses and precarious employment was ‘protective’ trade union enrolment. Such provision should not apply across the board for we do not believe in a one-size-fits-all approach. However, it is an undeniable fact that there are categories of workers who will never be able to join the union of their choice unless there is some sort of outside intervention. The construction industry is a case in point.

Is not it very bizarre that in Malta there is no single construction industry employee who is a trade union member, despite the fact that this is one of the riskiest jobs on the market? How come no construction worker has ever wondered to join a union in an attempt to step up efforts to improve occupational health and safety? The same applies, albeit not to the same degree, to other categories such as platform workers, cleaners and securities to mention a few.  This is why UHM is advocating a rather paternalistic approach through the ‘protective’ union membership for low-income workers. Given that there were no qualms in being paternalistic to increase female MPs through the quota mechanism, why should vulnerable workers be treated any differently.  

In this regard, the government – which is by far Malta’s largest employer – should be leading by example. UHM CEO Josef Vella has called for the implementation of the protective trade union membership principle among private contractors servicing public entities through the outsourcing agreements. Once, these employees are free to join a trade union of their choice, they will start benefit from collective bargaining and hence start addressing the ongoing discrimination whereby workers doing the same exact job are being paid differently.  Such a step would not only be in line with government’s manifesto in favour of strengthening trade union membership, social dialogue and collective bargaining, but most importantly it would be a significant step forward for vulnerable workers.