A forum for all workers

I was honoured to have been invited to address the triennial general conference of Forum in my capacity as chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika, the Green party earlier this week. Forum represents 12,000 workers including professionals, yet it remained without representation in the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development for so long.

In my speech I reaffirmed AD’s total support of Forum’s request to join the MCESD. Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have now promised to fast-track changes to the law to allow such membership.

Given its membership base, one can only expect Forum to keep growing in membership. Hence, its exclusion would have meant that thousands of workers’ remained unrepresented on this institution.

On the other hand, Forum was accepted as a member of the Malta-EU Steering and Action Committee. AD is proud to have lobbied for Forum to be accepted by this institution.
In my speech at the conference, I highlighted some challenges that I consider to be of great importance for unions and workers in Malta.

To begin with, I disagree with those who believe that social class is dead. If anything, class differences are growing in a context of economic crises and austerity measures. The basic fact that workers sell their labour power to employers still holds and, in itself, this represents inequality in contemporary society.

On the other hand, the working class is diversified not only in terms of occupation, job conditions, security and other structural factors but is also characterised by different perceptions, aspirations, lifestyles and political affiliation. These differences help explain why Malta fails to have a unified voice on workers’ issues of major concern.

Such issues include the need to have a realistic assessment of the cost of living adjustment so the yearly compensation would truly reflect the rise in inflation. Hence, an updated methodology should replace the current one on which COLA is based.

AD has also been calling for an increase in the minimum wage and for a revision in the way it is calculated. We are glad that, apart from other progressive organisations and unions, Caritas is also putting forward this demand.

Such an increase should also be given to part-timers and workers forced to register as self-employed. It would help improve the quality of life of low-paid workers and give them more spending power. Apart from improving the situation of the most vulnerable workers, such an increase would also encourage more people to enter the formal labour market, making work pay, and encouraging an increase in productivity in the process.

Another major issue that is increasingly characterising employment in Malta is precariousness. Job insecurity and inadequate work conditions are spreading to various sectors of the workforce, from cleaners to researchers, who are employed with definite contracts or, worse, are forced to declare their status as self-employed. This increases strain, anxiety and risks for workers who cannot plan ahead due to job insecurity or who cannot make ends meet due to low pay, sometimes even below the minimum wage.

The government and the MCESD should show more determination vis-à-vis such exploitative situations. The former should set the example by banning public service contracts based on unacceptable conditions. Clear standards should immediately be set in this regard.
AD also believes that gender equality should be stepped up in the labour market. This should not only mean having a higher percentage of women in employment or having a higher percentage of female managers. What is increasingly required is having a more egalitarian social policy giving priority to job sharing, flexitime upon workers’ choice, accessible child care centres, including after school hours, and so forth.

Parental leave should keep rising to EU standards and the government should share financial responsibility for this.

Social policy should promote the concept of universal carers where men and women – irrespective of their status – should be active in both the public sphere (employment, civil society, leisure etc.) and the private sphere (caring for dependents, etc.). Besides, we should also aspire towards having less working hours and more free time. This is ever more obtainable in a context of increased productivity.

Given that trade unions have been crucial in improving workers’ rights, we also encourage such movements to step up their activism for categories that face unequal situations in the labour market. These include persons with disability, immigrants, former prisoners and ageing workers.
Other policies we support include making closed shops illegal, having secret ballots among workers before industrial actions and ensuring that one-year definite contracts which are extended will be considered as indefinite.

Together with other green parties, trade unions, experts and the United Nations, AD shares the vision of the Green New Deal, which aims to generate green jobs in areas such as education, IT, transport, tourism, waste management, agriculture and so forth. This presents a win-win situation, where job creation and environmental protection are synthesised. Yet, like all other sectors of the economy, one must ensure that such new jobs are not precarious.

It remains to be seen whether employers are ready to go for more sustainable investment and whether the government is ready to give more incentives beyond vague goals.
AD believes that the state has a vital role to play in ensuring more just and sustainable social, economic and environmental policies, which affect workers’ job conditions and quality of life. As we are seeing in the field of energy, for example, weak governance and lack of foresight is resulting in increased hardships for workers.

Likewise, we believe that unions are crucial in workers’ struggles for a more dignified life. My appeal in this regard is twofold. First, for trade unions to act on the basis of working class interests and not on partisan tribalism. Second, for trade unions to step up alliance building at national, European and global levels, not only with fellow trade unions but also with other movements in the struggle for a social, ecological and sustainable Europe.

Mr Briguglio, a sociologist, is chairman and spokesman for economy and finance, Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green party.
A forum for all workers

The Times, 13th April 2012