There used to be a time when we Maltese were admired for our work ethic and, to some extent, it still exists, especially in private industry. There are many hardworking entrepreneurs who take risks, work extremely long hours, and in so doing contribute to the economy and create jobs for others. I also often meet small business owners, some of whom are incredibly mature for their young age, who are to be applauded for keeping their enterprise afloat in this competitive market where there is a saturation of practically every skill and profession.
But we cannot ignore that there is a growing strata of society which is quite content to bum off others, relying unnecessarily on social benefits and scrounging off the state – in short, they are willing to do anything and go to great (sometimes very creative) lengths rather than face a day’s work and earn their own livelihood. Now there are those who might call this a conservative, right-wing view, which goes diametrically opposite to a belief in social justice for all, but I disagree. In fact, I do not think that left-wing or right-wing politics comes into it all and I would hazard a guess that, no matter who they vote for, many people would agree that benefits abuse is rife and is unfair to those who do not simply sit at home expecting hand-outs. Irrespective of their politics, they feel that (except for legitimate reasons) those who are fit and healthy should go out and make their own living. It is a matter of self-respect.
So how did we go from being a nation of busy bees to one where a large chunk are on a never-ending treadmill of work, work, work while an increasing percentage are content to be lazy?
Mintoff is often blamed for creating this dependency culture, but on this, I also disagree. Much as I may criticise his later policies, I do not believe that when Mintoff created the welfare state and implemented much-needed reforms to help those who were less fortunate, that what he had in mind was for a sector of the population to basically turn into parasites who feed off the state, while the rest of society worked their behinds off to support them. Social services, from unemployment, to children’s allowances, to social housing and sick leave are crucial and are there to act as a safety net, but somewhere along the way, perhaps because of an innate cunning, there were those who figured out loopholes and ingenious ways of circumventing the system. There was also a point when successive governments were collectively guilty of just giving away too much for free.
It is for these reasons that I am wholly in favour of the recent announcement that those who are claiming unemployment benefits and keep refusing jobs or insisting on ’non-existent’ vacancies, will be struck off the register. If you really want to work, if you are desperate to earn your own money, you will accept anything, that’s how I see it. This is not an unreasonable expectation after all, because what is the alternative? Having able-bodied men and women who are content to remain permanently on the dole, rather than work, so that they can lounge all day in their PJs only stirring themselves up long enough to go register at the local ETC job centre? It is a welcome measure, and drives the message home that there is no such thing as a free lunch. (It will also weed out those who are working on the side while still collecting unemployment).
Most of all, it might go some way to restoring the work ethic for which we used to be known rather than enabling and encouraging yet another generation to think that the state is their personal ATM machine. It does no one any good to continue nurturing laziness, least of all the recipients or society at large. While genuine cases deserve all our help, it is obvious that simply throwing money at social problems is not really the best solution in the long run, unless there are obligations and responsibilities attached, because we are only paving the way for inevitable abuse which has made the welfare system unsustainable. It is crucial to continue hammering home the truism that there is dignity and pride in earning your own living which no amount of dole money can give you.
Otherwise, it ends up being a situation similar to when spoiled rich kids who are handed the keys to expensive cars on their 18th birthday think nothing if they crash that car the first time they drive it because Daddy will bale them out (and get them another car). When you haven’t had to to work hard for something yourself, it becomes meaningless, with no value at all and you go through life assuming that there’s always more where that came from.