Monday 18 June 2018

The changing face of Malta: Some home truths

This article first appeared in Malta Today

It is no secret that Malta’s demographics have been changing at a rapid pace due to various factors from EU membership to refugees and, of course, the Citizenship scheme.

The result is a country which has undergone a series of jolts and shocks in a relatively short span of time, and it is natural that a period of adjustment was required for many to get used to the changes. For, let us not forget that up to14 years ago when we became EU members, there was a certain hegemony which we were all used to.  Non-Maltese nationals living here were the exception rather than the rule, and many did so through marriage, or in the case of many British nationals, upon retirement.  They were assimilated into our culture in a natural process over the years and there was hardly a ripple of disturbance.  

Over the years, however, the momentum changed and the gradual trickle felt like someone had suddenly flung open all the gates and a gush of people was suddenly pouring in.  Of course it wasn’t just a one way street. Freedom of movement to work and study in any European country meant that many 20 and 30-somethings took the opportunity to pack up and leave as they had always yearned to, but it also meant that the opposite was bound to happen as well (although many who voted for the EU seemed not to have read the fine print on this point). Economic migration has opened the floodgates as people leave their countries where unemployment is sky high, in search for a job, any job.  Those seeking asylum as refugees fleeing war in their countries have also added to the numbers, as they have throughout Europe.   

A more multi-cultural Malta has thus emerged, much to the consternation of many who cannot quite adapt to this phenomenon.   The resistance to this is understandable, because as I have pointed out in the past, one cannot simply FORCE people to integrate or to feel comfortable with new ethnic groups and cultures just by snapping one’s fingers.  It takes time, and sometimes, generations. The resentment is often there, just below the surface, especially when the proximity of swarms of people in a small space leads some to snap, with tempers flaring, ready to lash out at whoever is near by.

That Malta as a people was not ready for these changes is obvious.  But it is also patently obvious that Malta as a country, from its infrastructure to its bureaucracy, was not ready for this either.  From real-life experiences recounted on social media, to daily information from news reports, the picture which is painted is of an island which is trying to grapple with a constantly-changing landscape but which has found itself woefully unprepared for it.  

For example, not a day goes by that I don’t read a number of complaints from one of the ex-pat groups about the difficulties of getting one’s basic affairs in order once one moves here.  From opening a bank account, to negotiating the maze of renting an affordable apartment from a decent landlord and being put on the correct tariff for the water & electricity bill, it all sounds like a deliberate obstacle course guaranteed to put off anyone who is in the least bit fainthearted. 

And yet, a recent news report tells us that there are almost 43,000 foreigners currently employed on the island.  Within another five years it is being estimated that 30% of the workforce will be made up of non-Maltese nationals. So despite the fact that moving and settling in here is not as straightforward as it could be, we are told that the country needs to “import” more and more workers, which is presumably why there is all this unfettered construction of towering blocks of apartments.  According to a report on TVM, “There are sectors such as gaming, financial services, IT and pharmaceuticals for which we do not have enough Maltese workers, and no matter how many new people qualify in these fields there will still not be enough to keep up with the demand. On top of these one needs to add those sectors which “are no longer attractive to Maltese workers”. 

The latter point is significant and ties in with another news story which came out this week. In 2015, the GWU was entrusted by JobsPlus with a scheme to employ those who had been unemployed for a number of years.  As a result 600 people were struck off the unemployment register and given mostly maintenance work at government schools and local councils for which they received about €750 a month. Now according to a story in The Times, we learn that a good number of these workers were simply not showing up at their place of work. Inspectors who went to verify reports by councils or who were carrying out routine checks, have now deducted a day’s vacation leave from those who were skiving.

Bearing this in mind, it was therefore not a surprise to learn that a staggering 73% of unemployed people in Malta aged between 20 and 34 are not willing to leave the country for work, according to Eurostat.  If they can barely rouse themselves to go to a job which is handed to them, I can hardly imagine their having enough energy to actually board a plane and go to another country where they have no Mama to cook their meals or do their washing. 

To further compound all this we have a birth rate which is dropping. Statistics published by Eurostat show that two years ago, Malta classified among the top five countries which have the lowest birth rate.  Demographic experts say that if this trend continues, the pressure will increase on the pensions system while also leading to a decline in the Maltese population in the longterm.  And unless Maltese people are prepared to start reproducing like rabbits from now on, this is not going to change, which means the next generation is going to be even more “mixed”.  Cultural diversity is here to stay.

So to sum up, we are already bursting at the seams as the population is swelled by those who are coming to live here in order to build the properties required….for more people to live here.   We have a self-deprecating saying in Maltese, “inħobbu naraw kbir” (too big for our boots) and it truly fits in this situation.   Rather than accepting the limitations of our size, we are acting as if space (like money) is no problem.  But the plain truth is that we are going to reach breaking point as the whole system is already groaning under a myriad of pressures because of a lack of foresight and planning. Rather than trying to force Malta to be something it is not, we just need to say stop. 

Stop to any further construction and encourage this industry to turn to renovating existing abandoned buildings instead, using the workforce already on the island.

Stop trying to attract quantity instead of quality, and let’s start being more selective, diligent and rigorous about certain investments. 

From gaming companies to petrol stations, we need to stop obsessing about the need for “more”.  

As the Director General of the Malta Employers Association Joe Farrugia recently pointed out on the programme Dissett, we need to start thinking of what is manageable rather than sheer numbers.  “I would rather have 2 million tourists rather than 5 million, which is better for Malta’s capacity and who will leave behind more money head to head. This goes for tourism, as well as manufacturing, the services industry and all the other sectors,” he said.

Nothing good ever came out of avarice, greed and over-consumption.  I seriously see no benefits of having money pouring out of our ears while everyone is fuming with rage on our gridlocked roads packed like sardines with too many cars, and daily traffic accidents as people rush and overspeed and overtake in the mistaken belief that they will get to where they want to be five minutes earlier than if they had to follow the speed limit.

In life, it’s always good to have a limit, for without limits all you get is chaos and mayhem.

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