Not counting the 2,000 third country nationals detained in closed centres, open centres in Malta host a total of 2,200 African immigrants, while a further 1,100 are estimated to live in the community. So with 3,300 eligible workers – be it due to refugee status, humanitarian protection or by means of temporary work permits – businesses in Malta cannot possibly ignore the emergence of a new working class and the need, for the sake of all involved, to apply fair and square employment terms and undiscriminating conditions.
On the political front, the issue is unpopular, and because of the sentiments immigration provokes to a large number of Maltese people – many political organisations prefer burying their heads in the sand and do nothing but pay counterproductive lip service on the issue.
It is therefore positively surprising that the GWU – an organisation that may be known among certain circles for being slow and archaic – decided to invest in promoting the idea of integration of African immigrants in the Maltese workplace. When, last September, the union published a policy paper outlining its progressive stand on the issue – it was difficult to identify whether or not the GWU’s real intention was to lay its hands on membership fees of over 3,000 prospective new members. Tony Zarb’s opening speech then, describing the influx of African immigration to Malta as a “national scourge”, certainly did not help.
But then again, the union is full of contrasts. It may be keeping its mouth shut on Minister John Dalli’s recent idea to revive talks on the Social Pact, in spite of this newspaper’s repeated attempts to get a reaction out of them, but in stark contrast, union officials last Saturday organised a conference with the aim of creating discussion among government, the political parties, employer associations and NGDOs on how to best deal with the emergence of this new workforce.
Disgracefully, neither of the Alternattiva Demokratika, nor Libertas, nor AN, nor PN party representatives were present. Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici left the conference half way through, before the round table discussion started. PL officials Michael Falzon and Anglu Farrugia made a terrible faux pas by going overly defensive on remarks made by NGDO spokespersons present on Labour’s use of terms whenever immigration is discussed.
But the bottom line is that exploitation of third country employees is rife, and this is not necessarily a mere humanitarian issue for NGDOs, unions and government to worry about. Many African immigrants are being illegally employed by hotels, restaurants and construction firms – when it is amply clear that the Maltese law does not forbid their employment.
Should companies employ third country nationals by use of the proper legal channels – we all stand to gain.
Maltese workers for starters, will not be able to complain about competing in an unfair job market – since a non-discriminatory setting of wages would with it ensure that each employee’s salary is commensurate to the tasks involved and his or her ability to carry them out efficiently, irrespective of skin colour or country of origin.
With effective enforcement, employers would be competing in a level playing field, with payroll costs more realistically reflecting workforce production.
Also, government stands to benefit with the collection of taxes.
More importantly, the economy would be further stimulated with a managed increase in commercial and industrial productivity.
No doubt, with good leadership, an increase in productivity in a multitude of areas will lead to swifter economic development. With cultural diversity and proper integration, this becomes all the more possible.
As much as the GWU knows how controversial this model is when applied to Malta in this day and age, there seemed to be no disagreement among the NGDOs and employer organisations present on the benefits we may reap if we were to adopt this approach.
Without political will however, this is all pie in the sky. Throughout the conference, a question on whether or not third country nationals are eligible to social benefits came up three times and remained unanswered, if not ignored. PL used up their time in unfruitful bickering while the rest of the political class’ absence spoke volumes.
It is really of no use for the business community to agree on a model of proper workplace integration if politicians work counterproductively by instilling fear and panic among the Maltese to gain nothing but political mileage.