The history of industrial relations in Malta was mostly triggered by the emergence of the first trade unions in Malta. The earliest Maltese trade unions date back to the late 19th Century when the influence of the British Trade Union movement and the Industrial Relations model started to dissipate in other countries. The first one was the Fitters Union (Later renamed as Societa Operaia (Senglea) and was formed as a Benefits Society in 1884 by Dockyard fitters.
In 1916 the dockyard workers formed the Imperial Government Workers Union which ordered the first strike at the dockyards in May 1917. This strike was a response to a 10% wage increase given by the Imperial Government which was considered as low against the highly inflated prices of essential commodities such as bread, milk and meat which at that time were scarce due to the World War 1 (WW1) events. Although the imperial government increased the wage rate hardship continued to be felt by various segments due to the persisting inflation, even after the end of WW1. These hardships eventually led to the 7th June 1919 uprisings.
In the first quarter of the 20th Century collective bargaining took place without the existence of legal framework. However the situation which inevitably led to practical problems, coupled with the matter of unemployment pushed the Ministry for Posts, Agriculture, Labour and Emigration to conduct a relative study. The study that was undertaken by Captain Henry C. Curmi led to the inception of a Labour Bureau which was the first step towards the creation of what is today known as the Department for Industrial and Employment Relations (DIER). The most noteworthy result of the Labour Bureau was the enactment of the Workmen’s Compensation Act in 1929 which enabled workers to be insured against injuries at work. In 1933 the Labour Bureau became known as the Labour Department which continued to enact more labour laws such as the Weekly Rest (Bakers and Barbers) Act 1933, the Hours of Employment Ordinance 1936, the Stevedores and Port Workers Ordinance of 1939 and the Factories Ordinance of 1940.
World War II had its marked effect on the organisation of the Department and by 1943 there were the Director of National Service, the Director of Man Power and Commissioner for Labour and Emigration. In November 1943 the Government decided to co-ordinate all labour, welfare, emigration and insurance work into one department under a Director of Labour and Social Welfare. The re-organisation of the Labour Department brought about the amalgamation of the National Service and Manpower sections under the directorship of Mr. H.E. Knott.
October 1943 saw the establishment of the General Workers Union (GWU) which totalled some 22,000 members within a year. The GWU Secretary Reggie Miller called for the enactment of trade union legislation and got his claims heard in March 1945 with the enactment of the Trade Unions and Trade Disputes Ordinance 1945. This law inter alia provided for the compulsory registration of Trade Unions and for the appointment of a Registrar of Trade Unions. This was an important achievement for industrial relations mechanisms in Malta as it vested trade unions with immunity from actions of tort in respect of any offence committed in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute. The first list of Declared Membership of Registered Trade Unions refers to May 1946. In April 1948 the Department was renamed as the Department of Labour since the social relief section ceased to form part of the Department and was transferred to the Ministry of Health and Social Services. In September 1948, the Conciliation and Arbitration Act was enacted which provided for the settlement of trade disputes and for the setting up of an Arbitration Tribunal and a Court of Inquiry.
The Trade Unions and Trade Disputes Ordinance 1945 was superseded in 1952 by the enactment of the Conditions of Employment (Regulation) Act of 1952 (CERA). Lasting half a century the CERA regulated the relations between employers and employees. Among other things, it provided for the protection of wages (considered as privileged debts), vacation leave and unfair dismissal. The CERA also provided for the establishment of Wages Councils whose functions were that to fix tailor made conditions of employment known as Wage Regulation Orders (WRO’s), suiting specific sectors. The Department of Labour was vested with the duties of labour inspection and enforcement. In December 1955 the Department was amalgamated with that of Social Welfare. Three months later in February 1956 it became Department of Emigration Labour and Social Welfare following its amalgamation with Emigration and its operations moved from 108 Britannia street to11 Kingsway Valletta.
The National Employment Board was established following the enactment of the Employment Service Act in 1955 which stated the conditions for the registration of the unemployed. In the same year a tri-partite delegation made up of the Director Emigration Labour and Social Welfare (representing the Government), a Trade Unions' delegate and another one representing the Employers, took part as observers in the first official international involvement by Malta in labour relations at the annual International Labour Office conference in Geneva. In 1968 the Social Welfare division was separated from the Department due to the increasing workload and it was simply renamed as the Department of Labour and Emigration. 1976 saw the enactment of the Industrial Relations Act of 1976 (IRA) which apart from consolidating the Trade Unions and Trade Disputes Ordinance of 1945 and the Conciliation & Arbitration Act of 1948, it provided new concepts such as the establishment of an Industrial Tribunal offering among others the possibility of reinstatement for those found unfairly dismissed.
1990 was a turning point for the Department of Labour in particular following the enactment of the Employment and Training Services Act which gave birth to the Employment and Training Corporation (ETC). The Department of Labour lost some of its core functions namely the registration of persons seeking employment and job placements, the database (Work Book) and the training function. Moreover the National Employment Board ceased to exist and was replaced by a National Employment Authority. The tri-partite Malta Council for Economic Development (MCED) was also launched in the same year, and was set to operate the National Agreement on Industrial Relations with the aim to reduce industrial conflict associated in particular with wage setting.
The events of 1990 seemed to lessen the institutional importance of the Department of Labour. However following the enactment of the Employment and Industrial Relations Act in 2002 (EIRA) which consolidated the CERA and IRA, the Department developed into a key institution in the Maltese industrial relations field. The Department which was now renamed as the Department of Industrial and Employment Relations (DIER) was no longer merely considered to be responsible to recover termination benefits of dismissed workers.
The DIER assumed an important dimension in the labour relations, for instance it was vested with the responsibility to execute the requirements of the EIRA about the adoption of the EU Labour Acquis. As part of the Government Policy to join the European Union, the Department’s officials contributed to the E.U. accession process by among others participating in tripartite discussions in the negotiating process at a national level. Nowadays, officials of the Department regularly attend E.U. Expert Groups where E.U. Directives and other E.U. related initiatives are discussed.
Subsidiary legislation under the EIRA is regularly being drafted by the Department and passed on to the Minister after consultation by the newly appointed Employment Relations Board (ERB).
The emergence of an ever increasing global market competition requires more co-operative industrial relations. This scenario enhances the importance in the role of the DIER to fulfil the requirements of Part II of the EIRA dealing with the voluntary settlement of disputes and provides for the set up of a Conciliation Panel. The Director of Employment and Industrial Relations plays a key role in dispute resolution related to employer and trade union/s relations (e.g. Collective Agreement issues) and also disputes involving trade union recognition. The DIER enjoys a successful track record in its dispute resolution exercises, thus avoiding disrupting strikes or other forms of industrial action contributing to an increasingly stable industrial climate.
The DIER improved the operations of its Inspectorate, Enforcement and Customer Care sections in order to provide a better service to customers. Another role is that of offering support to the Guarantee Fund Administration Board which is set to provide for the protection of employees in the event of the insolvency of their employer, insofar as to guarantee payment of valid outstanding claims of unpaid wages.
Importance has justifiably been given to labour research with the set up of the Research Section which among others conducts studies about the labour market and also about the Department’s internal procedures. The dissemination of information is also being given its due importance. The DIER has recently published 9 leaflets about conditions of employment while the periodical publication of an electronic newsletter was launched in August 2006. A revamped DIER website was launched online in December 2010 and among other things it provides extensive information about the conditions of employment and a database containing Industrial Tribunal Decisions.
The Department of Industrial and Employment Relations is now situated in 109/121 Melita Street Valletta and strives “to protect the interests of workers holding employment contracts while, in a spirit of social partnership, actively promoting a healthy relationship, and to contribute towards stable industrial relations”.
Author: Louis Grech
Department’s Annual Reports
Attard, J. (1984). Industrial Relations in Malta. 1st ed. Hamrun: Publishers Enterprises Group.