9 JANUARY 2002
By Kurt Sansone
The proposal by government to outlaw sympathy strikes, as outlined in the white paper amending the Industrial Relations Act has nothing to do with EU legislation and more to do with governments way of forging out a future for industrial relations.
The EU has no regulations governing this aspect of industrial relations. A spokesperson for the Malta EU Information Centre confirmed that labour legislation involving strikes is up to the individual member states to enact.
The spokesperson added that although most EU countries are party to international conventions that safeguard workers rights, they have done this as individual states and not on an EU-wide basis.
An aspect covered by EU legislation is the principle of non-discrimination where migrant workers are involved. Therefore if a French woman goes to work in Italy she enjoys all the rights and obligations Italian workers enjoy and that includes rights and obligations derived from legislation governing strikes.
The reactions by the unions concerns the definition of the term trade dispute.
As is customary in all laws, article 2 of the IRA gives the definition of a number of words, which are subsequently used in the rest of the legal text. Among the definitions one finds the words trade dispute.
As things stand today the words trade dispute mean a dispute between employers and workers, or between workers and workers... The law then lists a number of instances when a trade dispute is lawful.
In the proposed changes the words trade dispute mean an individual or collective dispute between an employer and workers who are his employees...
The change seems insignificant but whereas the former allows workers to conduct sympathy strikes despite not having a dispute with their employer, the latter explicitly limits the right to strike to a trade dispute with the workers immediate employer. This means that sympathy strikes will be effectively outlawed.
The proposal to amend Maltas IRA resembles the legislation currently in force in Britain, where it is practically impossible for trade unions to conduct sympathy strikes.
A series of legislative changes during the Thatcher years eroded much of the trade union powers and workers rights in Britain. The labour laws were given an overhaul by Tony Blairs Labour government, which partially restored legal rights to recognition for collective bargaining to trade unions. Despite the improvements, strikes are limited to disputes that involve union members and their immediate employer. And crippling fines make it virtually impossible for trade unions to engage in lawful secondary or sympathy action.
On the contrary, in Italy the right to strike is embodied in the Constitution and this also includes sympathy strikes. Legislative changes in 2000 established a minimum service requirement during strike action, for essential public services.
A similar proposal is being made in the white paper presented by the Maltese government, which aims to take on board a suggestion made by the ILO in 2000 following the MIA industrial dispute.
The amendment aims to establish the minimum staffing levels of essential and vital services, which include health and different categories of port workers.
Sympathy strikes are a thorny issue and Maltese trade unions have used them very effectively over recent years. Unionists argue that sympathy strikes give workers a stronger voice on a national level, even though they should be used as sparingly as possible.
On the other hand, employers see sympathy strikes as a threat to productivity because companies effected by such action will be paying the price for somebody elses dispute.