Collective bargaining is in the offing …

Collective bargaining and collective agreements are being introduced into the Maldives.

This is being achieved through the introduction of a full-fledged bill on industrial relations. The first reading of this fundamental legislation, motivated by government policy and sponsored by a ruling party parliamentarian, occurred in parliament on 22 March 2023. 

Spread over 79 pages and containing 126 provisions, the industrial relations bill is now awaiting parliamentary debate during its second reading. It is at the end of this stage that a vote will be taken to see if the bill is acceptable in principle, and sails through to the committee stage for further review.

Fundamental right

The 2008 constitution guarantees the fundamental right to form unions and take part (or not take part) in union activities.

However, a law to specifically provide for the organization registration and regulation of unions was lacking. The absence was conveniently filled in part by civil society outfits. In other part, the right remained largely unregulated since the absence of a regulatory regime was no excuse to deny a fundamental right.

This is the first time that a dedicated legislation on industrial relations is designed and developed for the country.

All existing unions registered under any other law will have to be organized under this new law once it comes into force. Also, all provisions of such other laws will, to the extent of any inconsistency with this new law be invalidated and made inapplicable – so far as they relate to unions.

Applicable scope

Except for categories exempted by this new legislation (when it is adopted) or by any subsequent legislation, the law is designed to be applicable to employees and employers across every vertical, industry or sector – public or private.

The law is designed currently not to apply to Maldives Defense, Maldives Police, and political appointees.

This means that until any subsequent law exempts a specific category, the law will continue to apply from its launch to all categories of employers and employees except those exempted by this new law.

Initiating collective bargaining

Chapter 8 of the bill is dedicated to collective bargaining and collective agreements.

An effort for collective bargaining may be initiated by an invitation to the relevant employer or their relevant employers’ union.

Any such invitation is to accompany a proposal that must contain at least one or more of the following: improvement of workplace conditions; change of terms of employment; regulation of employer employee relations; and strengthening of relations between employees and their unions, their employer or relevant employers’ unions.

No such proposal from a trade union for collective bargaining shall aim at the protection of any individual right of a specific member of that union, or enhancement of a specific benefit for that member.

A decision on the acceptance of an invitation must be made within 14 days of receipt of the proposal by the relevant employer or employers’ union. An invitation to commence consultations must be given by the relevant trade union within 30 days of acceptance of a proposal.

Where a union has given an invitation to initiate collective bargaining, or the union is actively engaged in those consultations, industrial action (or any act facilitating such action) by individual workers is restricted.

According to the bill, industrial action includes lockout, work stoppage, work slow, overtime stoppage, processions, marches, assemblies, protests, and the like.

Where an invitation to begin negotiations is rejected or remains unattended for 15 days without any response, a request may be filed with the director general of industrial relations (a post created by this bill) to facilitate engagement between the parties. On receipt of such a request, the director general of industrial relations is to find a mediated solution for the impasse through the appointment of conciliation officers.

Every agreement reached via collective bargaining ought to be in writing and signed by parties to the agreement. Once reached, the parties must file it with the director general of industrial relations to register that agreement. A collective agreement may be amended or set aside only by agreement of the parties to the agreement.

A collective bargaining agreement registered with the director general of industrial relations is a legally binding agreement enforceable in accordance with its terms against the parties to the agreement.

Workplace bargaining

Where a trade union representing majority employees of an employer invites to collectively bargain on a matter specific to that employer (touching the workplace conditions or relations between the employer and their employees), the employer is under an obligation to begin negotiations with that trade union.

Any such proposal must be aimed at the protection of interests of all the employees of that employer collectively.

Consequential legislation

The bill before the parliament on industrial legislation contains a rather comprehensive legal and regulatory framework. It covers several aspects of industrial relations. Most of it is new to the country. It creates several offices – the registrar of unions and director general of industrial relations being among them. 

It is premature to predict the changes that may come to this bill during its stages of review and adoption in parliament. It is also unclear how this bill will be received both by employers and employees alike.

That said, this will certainly be a consequential piece of legislation to touch upon employers and employees since the introduction of the Employment Act in 2008.

Note: this article is based on a draft bill on industrial relations proposed by the government in parliament on 22 March 2023. It may undergo several changes before its ultimate adoption.


Photo: Courtesy of Maldives Insider