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Trade Unions

Union density is relatively high in Malta, with more than four out of 10 employees belonging to unions, at least according to official figures. Two main union groupings, the GWU and UHM, face one another, both organising a wide spectrum of workers, although some occupations, such as teachers, bank employees and nurses, are in independent unions. There are political differences between the two main groups and relations have sometimes been tense.

There are 101,801 trade union members in Malta. These are the figures from Malta’s Registrar of Trade Unions for the 12 months to 30 June 2019, based on the unions’ own records.[1] They include 11,548 trade unionists who are in the pensioners’ sections of the two main union groupings, which means that around 90,000 trade unionists are likely to be in employment. With the labour force survey for the second quarter of 2019 reporting 211,448 employees in Malta[2], this indicates that around 43% of Malta’s employees are union members. This is close to the ICTWSS database of union membership that put union density at 44.6% in 2018.[3] 


However, a recent study, based on a survey of 781 employees in 2014-15 suggests that this may be an overestimate. Carried out by researchers at the Centre for Labour Studies at the University of Malta, it found that only a third of employees (33.8%) reported that they were union members.[4]


By far the two largest union groupings in Malta are the GWU, with 51,787 members and the UHM with 25,821. As both cover a wide range of industries and occupations, they are similar to union confederations in many other states, although UHM is also a member of a union confederation, the CMTU (see below).


In addition to these two major bodies, there are some smaller unions, which often have a high level of membership in the areas they organise. The most important of these are the MUT (teachers) with 9,903 members, the MUMN (midwives and nurses) with 3,966 members and the MUBE (bank employees) with 3,000 (all figures from the Registrar of Trade Unions returns for 2018-19).


The GWU, which was founded in 1943, began as an organisation of workers in the British naval dockyard. It now has eight separate sections covering different areas of the economy: chemicals and energy (7,972), government and public bodies (7,677), technology, electronics and communications (6,537), hospitality and food (5,594), professionals, finance and services (5,027), maritime and aviation (4,657), metal and construction (3,989) and disciplined and security forces (1,891), as well as a separate pensioners’ association (8,443). Membership figures are from the Registrar of Trade Unions’ 2019 report .


The UHM began as a union for clerical workers in the Maltese government in 1966 and it has extended its membership subsequently. It has seven separate sections for employees: port and transport (4,870), health and elderly services (4,525), education and care(4,152), manufacturing and commerce (3,930), public entities and communication (2,761) and public service employees (2,478). There is also a UHM pensioners’ section, with 3,105 members.


The UHM and MUBE as well as five smaller unions, including the Medical Association of Malta (doctors), with 932 members, are members of the Confederation of Malta Trade Unions (CMTU). There are around 30,000 members in unions affiliated to the CMTU, although not all have submitted returns to the Registrar of Trade Unions.[5] However, it is the member unions rather than the CMTU that are dominant in the relationship.


As well as the GWU and CMTU there is a third union grouping, known as Forum Unions Maltin (For.U.M.). Initially set up with eight unions in 2004, with the MUMN (nurses and midwives) playing a key role, it now has 12 unions affiliated, including the MUT (teachers), which joined in 2008  after leaving CMTU, and UMASA (academic staff), which has 546 members.[6] Figures from the Registrar of Trade Unions indicate that these 12 unions, which are largely professional and technical, have 15,444 members.


The largest unions outside the three main groupings are Union of Professional Educators, a teachers’ union with 1,866 members, and two unions for the police, the Police Officers’ union with 1,257 members in 2018, and the Malta Police Association with 1,091 in 2019. Police officers only gained the right to organise in unions in 2015.


The GWU is close to the social democratic Partit Laburista (PL) and was formally merged with it for the period from 1978 to1992. The other unions emphasise their independence from political parties, although the CMTU and the UHM, its main component, are seen as closer to the centre-right Nationalist Party (PN).


Historically there has been considerable rivalry between the GWU and the UHM,[7] including clashes over recognition rights (rights to bargaining with the employer and represent members in individual companies). However, on some issues there is agreement. Both, for example, support planned European pay transparency measures to reduce the gender pay gap.[8]  Relations are better between the GWU and For.UM, who have worked together on a number of occasions, organising joint meetings and conferences.


Figures from the Registrar of Trade Unions show that overall union membership, which grew strongly at the end of the 1990s before stabilising in the first years of the century and dipping as the 2008 financial crisis hit Malta, is again moving upwards. Over 10 years, declared union membership increased by 20.1% rising from 84,760 in 2009 to 101,801 in 2019. However, union membership has not kept up with the growth in the number of employees which grew by 52.3% over the same period, from 138,862 in the second quarter of 2009 to 211,448 in the second quarter of 2019.[9]


One reason for the failure of union membership to keep pace is that around three-quarters of these new employees come from outside Malta. Figures from the Employment and Training Commission show that between 2009 and 2018 the number of non-Maltese employees increased from 9,530 to 55,280, with Italians as the largest group (9,379 in 2018).[10]  As a study by the central bank has shown that on average these non-Maltese workers only stay in Malta for 3.5 years,[11] this makes them difficult to recruit. The GWU has, however, recently linked up with the Italian union confederation CGIL to provide a contact point for Italian workers in Malta.[12]


To provide greater protection for workers in precarious employment, the GWU has called for trade union membership to be made mandatory, with employees who did not wish to join paying into a general fund.[13] However, this has not been supported by the UHM.


The unions are stronger in the public sector than in the private sector, particularly in the private services sector. There are also more male than female union members on the basis of the 2018-19 figures from the Registrar of Trade Unions. In the two major union groupings, men outnumber women – by 38,141 to 13,646 in the GWU and by 14,459 to 11,362 in UHM – and, although there are important unions where  women are in a majority, such as the teachers’ union (MUT), the midwives’ and nurses’ union (MUMN) and the bank employees’ union (MUBE), overall 60,554 union members are men and 41,247 are women.  

[1] Report by the Registrar of Trade Unions: 2018-19 https://dier.gov.mt/en/About-DIER/Archives/Reports%20by%20the%20Registrar%20of%20Trade%20Unions/Documents/trade_union_report_2018_19.pdf (Accessed 24.04.2020)

[2] Labour Force Survey: Q2/2019, NSO News Release 30 September 2019

[3] Jelle Visser, ICTWSS Data base. Version 6.1. Amsterdam: Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labour Studies AIAS. October 2019

[4] An analysis of trade union membership in Malta, by Manwel Debono, Xjenza, 2018, Volume 6, Issue 1 https://www.um.edu.mt/library/oar/bitstream/123456789/33871/1/Xjenza%2c_6%281%29_-_A6.pdf (Accessed 24.04.2020)

[5] CMTU – MUBE https://mube.org/cmtu/ (Accessed 24.04.2020)

[6] Forum Unions Maltin, affiliated members http://forummalta.org/ (Accessed 24.04.2020)

[7] See Tony Zarb, last of the militants by James Debono Malta Today October 2015  https://www.maltatoday.com.mt/news/national/57852/tony_zarb_last_of_the_militants#.XqayM2hKiUk (Accessed 24.04.2020)

[8] Unions and employers clash on compulsory wage transparency to address gender pay gap by Massimo Costa, Malta Today November 2019 https://www.maltatoday.com.mt/news/national/98715/watch_unions_and_employers_clash_on_compulsory_wage_transparency_to_address_gender_pay_gap#.XqlnGGhKiUk (Accessed 24.04.2020) 

[9] National Statistics Office – Malta: News releases, 7 October 2009 and 30 September 2019

[10] Foreign Nationals Employment Trends, Jobsplus https://jobsplus.gov.mt/resources/publication-statistics-mt-mt-en-gb/labour-market-information/foreigners-data#title1.1 (Accessed 24.04.2020)

[11] The length of stay of foreign workers in Malta, Central bank of Malta, Quarterly Review 2019:2

[12] Cgil e Gwu, il 30 novembre a Malta inaugurazione contact point con Landini, CGIL website 26.11.2019 http://www.cgil.it/cgil-e-gwu-il-30-novembre-a-malta-inaugurazione-contact-point/  (Accessed 24.04.2020)

[13] GWU’s planned mandatory union membership allows paid opt-out, Times of Malta, 22 August 2019, https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/gwus-planned-mandatory-union-membership-allows-paid-opt-out.730165 (Accessed 24.04.2020)

L. Fulton (2021) National Industrial Relations, an update (2019-2021). Labour Research Department and ETUI (online publication). Online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.