Monday 08 August 2022

Could you live on €728 a month?

This blog post first appeared on Malta Today

When speaking on the proposal of raising the minimum wage, Malta Employer’s Association director Joseph Farrugia was quoting as saying that before discussing an increase in the minimum wage “we must first determine what our objective is and who we want to reach.” “We need to know how many people are on minimum wage, how long they have been on it and whether they have other income. In this way can we know how big the problem is and we can work on a more targeted approach that does not affect the operation of the entire market,” he said.

One would think that this information is already in hand, but apparently this is not the case, since figures for household expenditure have not been published even though the Household Budgetary Survey was carried out three years ago.

Until this information is made publicly available it is difficult to say whether raising the minimum wage is even feasible – how much would make a real difference, would it lead to businesses raising their prices to cover their overheads or would it simply result in employers letting people go because they cannot afford the increase in salaries? On the other hand, I think all would agree that wages in Malta across the board are still dismally low and all we can do is speculate about what it must be like to make do with a mere €728 a month, which is the current minimum wage. For most, that figure is so low it seems almost laughable and hard to believe, and yet I have no doubt that there are those who have to scrape by on just that. This is not based on any scientific survey but purely from observation.

If you have an eye for detail and are a “people watcher” you can easily see that, alongside the gloss and sophistication of many well-heeled, stylishly dressed Maltese people who are living very comfortably indeed, there are those whose frayed, cheap quality clothes have seen better days. (Of course there is always an exception to the rule: you do get the one off person who dresses shabbily to deliberately conceal the fact that he is actually an obscenely rich millionaire). Because Malta is basically the equivalent of one big town, it is not uncommon for those who are well off and those who are poor to rub shoulders with one another, even in the same supermarket. Unlike larger countries, where you may have the “good areas” and the lower income areas on completely the other side of town, which means the two worlds never really meet, here we are all likely to bump into one another at some point. Which means that if you go to the capital city and just stand on a corner for half an hour you will see a wide spectrum of people; a cross-section of the whole country ranging from those who think nothing of spending hundreds of Euros on a designer handbag, to those who are scrimping and saving just to buy the next bag of groceries.

There are parents who lavish their children with gifts for no reason at all, while others dread the approach of Christmas because it means they need to somehow find enough money, which they don’t have, to give their kids some type of present.

For every person who blithely upgrades their car every few years, even while raging against all the traffic, there are others who have no choice but to bus it.

While no one enjoys having to fork out on unexpected bills, a hefty household expense which comes out of the blue can be a devastating blow for those who are just getting by as it is.

It is this startling, very visible, contrast that runs through the various demographics which always strikes me, especially when there are those who pooh pooh the fact that Malta has real poverty. “I don’t see anyone who is really poor!” they will tell you, “and if they are poor, it’s completely their fault!” They will point to a lack of priorities among a certain sector of the population, where (for example) mothers prefer to get their nails done rather than pay for school supplies or a school outing, and yes, this type of poor judgement does, admittedly exist.

But unlike several generations ago when working class parents pushed their children to achieve in order to be “better than them”, these days it seems to me that abject poverty unfortunately often goes hand in hand with a lack of appreciation of the importance of a good education. Although our social welfare system is something to boast about I sometimes wonder if the easy availability of so many benefits has chipped away at the desire to aspire to something better. While providing a much needed safety net for those in real need, it is also true that there are scroungers who work the system, applying for every single benefit available, while earning undeclared money on the side through the black economy. The message is then transmitted to the kids, why bother with school, when you can get away with government hand-outs and working odd jobs on the sly?

Meanwhile, as the debate on the minimum wage continues, it is important not to let the flashy cars and upmarket clothes blind you to the other side of Malta. Those who are struggling to get by do exist, if you have eyes to see.

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