Monday 25 May 2020

Not a very happy Workers’ Day if you are earning one Euro per hour

This article first appeared in Malta Today

There was a time when you had to make sure you stocked up on your basic needs before a public holiday or on a Saturday because retail opening hours were heavily restricted.  Everything was closed on a Sunday. Mysteriously, and for reasons I could never fathom, only confectionaries were exempted from this. Village shops used to close between 1pm – 4pm, and shut their doors promptly at 7pm, so you had to tailor your shopping needs accordingly.  But as the female workforce increased, women could not automatically be assumed to be housewives who had all day to go shopping, so some changes were greatly needed.  Both men and women had much less available spare time which coincided with shops’ opening hours, so it did not make sense for these type of restrictions to continue.

Inevitably, these changes were greatly resisted and I remember countless heated discussion programmes debating whether shops should open on Sundays. I have always been in favour because the previous hours were simply not catering for the needs of today’s lifestyle – it seemed that while everyone in society was living in the present day, shops were living in some kind of time warp.  

Today, there are shops around the island which are open for long hours (6am – 10pm), day in day out, including on public holidays and Sundays – which is, admittedly, a great convenience when you run out of something.  But when our convenience is at the expense of those working there, who are being exploited by being paid what can only be described as slave wages, then it is a shameful indictment on those who should be ensuring that this does not happen. It is the complete opposite of social justice.  Providing your customers with plenty of time to shop any day of the week was never meant as a way for the owners to take advantage of the hapless worker.

According to UHM CEO Josef Vella, “We recently discovered that there is a group of foreigners working in Malta who are getting paid €1 for every hour they work. And that’s not even the worst part; we also found out that the money is not paid to them but sent to an agency back home in India.” 

If this is truly the case, it is beyond appalling, however, the question begs itself: has the union reported this shameful practice to the relevant authorities?  It is against the law to pay someone below the minimum wage, hence the word ‘minimum’.  If this practice is as blatant as many are claiming it to be, then either the authorities are turning a blind eye for whatever reason, or it is a case of “everyone knows but no one is reporting it” for fear of repercussions.  JobsPlus has a duty to ensure that anyone employed through them is given a proper contract, while DIER (Department for Industrial & Employee Relations) clearly stipulates what the minimum wage is and all the relevant bonuses and cost of living increases which employees are entitled to. 

The DIER website states: “On allegations that the conditions of work have not been observed, the employee can forward his/her claim, which must be supported by documents, to the Department of Industrial and Employment Relations. The Department will investigate and take the necessary steps.”  There are also Wage Regulation Orders covering employment conditions for specific sectors, such as construction. 

The problems arise when (a) there is no documentation to prove the breach of conditions because workers are paid in cash and (b) when the employee is so desperate for money that the last thing he wants to do is to file a complaint. One must also bear in mind that a foreign employee, newly arrived in a strange country, would not know all of this information unless they have been properly guided. 

There have been doubts raised as to whether this allegation of people being paid one Euro per hour is real, but two factors incline me to believe that these kind of working conditions do actually exist. First is the high turnover of staff in some shops – the one I go to regularly always seems to have a new face every month or so. The second indication is that we all know that flats are being rented out to 8 – 10 people per flat, and some landlords are openly advertising rooms for rent.   It is obvious that the only tenants willing to put up with such conditions are those who cannot afford current rental prices on their own, but can just about manage to make the rent if it is split between 8.

Taking advantage and exploiting people who do not know their rights explains why certain entrepreneurs are raking in the cash.  The most vulnerable workers are, of course, those who are Third Country Nationals coming from poor countries with high unemployment.  They would accept all this precisely because in comparison, life in Malta is probably much better than what they left behind. I came across a FB page, for example, called “Work Permit in Malta” which is targeting specific nationalities: 

“Cleaner, hotel room attendant and waiter vacancies are available for Malta from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, phillipino (sic),Thailand and Malaysia, candidate must have good in english and 3 years experience on relevant sector.” 

Meanwhile as the hospitality industry continues to struggle to find enough staff, it was reported that the MHRA is insisting with the Government that those who work in hotels and restaurants on Sundays and Public Holidays should not be paid double rate. 

It is all very well to celebrate Workers’ Day with throngs of people dressed in red, but what is the Labour Government actually doing for the downtrodden worker being treated so abysmally just so that capitalist fat cats can get even richer?

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