Saturday 22 June 2024

A country with two faces

This column first appeared in Malta Today

It never ceases to depress me how, on the surface, we seem to have a thriving economy and yet, we have sectors of the country which are very underpaid and people who are genuinely struggling. Of course, the economic pace could be a superficial veneer, ticking along in a parallel universe, in spite of the pockets of real poverty and the stratum of the middle class which is just about keeping its head above water.

Somehow, there is always enough money to be found for pricey (non urgent) projects and yet bread and butter issues are constantly kicked to the curb. Even worse, millions have been frittered away in dubious deals such as the Vitals Global Healthcare fiasco, to the direct detriment of the country’s perhaps most crucial sector: health.

If there is one profession which most people would have no problem seeing their taxes going towards, it is probably that of nurses and midwives. Quite simply, all of us at one time or another have needed a nurse; they are the backbone of our health centres and general hospitals. Without them there would be no primary care treatment, no surgical operations, no one doing the rounds in the wards and countless other duties. When last month, 4000 nurses and midwives obeyed their union’s directives to take industrial action, the ripple effect could be felt immediately. It had to be done, because otherwise the Government would not have budged.

The MUMN has been fighting to hammer out a decent collective agreement to improve their pay and working conditions but what has been offered so far is still a long way off from their demands. The financial package which Health Minister Fearne announced with such fanfare last Sunday, was described as increasing their take-home pay by around €6,000 a year by the end of the agreement period.

However, the union was quick to counter that this figure could only be met if nurses worked overtime and up to 56 hours a week. I’m rather surprised and disappointed by Fearne – did he actually think no one would read the fine print and figure out that the thousands of Euro he was bragging about were not really an increase at all, but an attempt to pull a fast one on the nurses? When put to a vote, an overwhelming 97.6% of union members voted against the Government’s proposal. This show of strength by the members of the MUMN is commendable and shows how important it is for workers to unite and stand firm, rather than allow themselves to be intimidated.

Within this field, there are also the forgotten, anonymous faces of nurses who can only dream to be members of a union. These are the TCNs who are propping up our entire health system, and without whom the whole hospital would collapse. They are being used and abused by an agency which employs them and which in turn “supplies” them to the Government for our state hospitals. I will quote from an op-ed piece by activist Patricia Graham who has spoken to over 40 of these nurses at length and has delved thoroughly into this issue:

“All of these nurses were hired from India (though I believe there are other nationalities also caught up in this mess) and placed in carer roles until they have completed their bridging course that cost them between €4,000 to €6,000.
They were then terminated as carers and re-employed as nurses but no application was made for their change of position/job to ID Malta, so in effect they are illegal. They have no work permits; they have no residency cards yet tax and social security are being deducted from their salary….They have not seen family since they arrived in Malta because if they leave to visit family they will receive an EU wide ban for being overstayers. Many have been here for at least 18 months without papers. They paid €6,000 to €8,000 to an agent in India to come here.”

ID Malta, the Immigration department and the Health Ministry all claimed to have no idea that this has been happening right under their noses. Ms Graham concluded that, “Every single nurse/carer who has fallen foul of this atrocity should be immediately regularised and issued with their residency documents, and I don’t mean in a month, two or three, I mean within the next week.” Within a few days after the piece appeared, the nurses started receiving a link to apply for their work permit from ID Malta (against payment of course). However, some of them have had enough of how they have been treated and will be leaving – who can blame them?

With so many foreign nurses affected, I find it impossible that “no one knew” about this state of affairs. The Health Ministry really needs to get its act in order and ensure that the people coming here from other countries to basically keep our health care system (not to mention our care homes) running, have their papers all in order and are not being shamefully exploited by local agencies.

Another sector where there one has to question what the priorities are is the property market. The Minister for Social Accommodation, Roderick Galdes, recently said that 2,800 beneficiaries will see their benefits for private rent increase by a maximum of €100. This means that a family earning a little over €13,500 a year and living in a private rental costing €9,600 a year, and who had a rent benefit of €3,800 a year, this year will be receiving up to €5,000, which amounts to €416 a month. The scheme assures that the tenant will not pay more than 25% of his income in rent.

On the face of it, subsidising the rent of those on a low income is not a bad thing, but rather than the Government providing more social housing, this scheme is targeted at those who are renting privately, so it is not helping for rents to level out and become more realistic. What really needs to be addressed is the entire rental market. There are still too many substandard properties being rented out at shocking prices and because there are many foreign workers who are desperate to rent and willing to share accommodation, prices continue to be driven up. The Housing Authority should be checking every single rental property to make sure it is legally registered and that it meets minimum standards because the inhumane practices have not ceased. The few which have come to light because they made the news, are only the tip of the iceberg.

The news of further rent subsidies was also met with anger by the middle class: those who have scrimped and saved to buy their own property. They pointed out that not only does this scheme encourage those on a low income to continue “leeching off our taxes” but that it is a slap in the face to everyone who is hardworking and sensible. “And where are the benefits for those who took out a home loan with the bank?” “What about those young people who have been crucified with a mortgage for the rest of their lives and did not place the burden on the Government?”

This is a valid point and one which is made time and again when benefits and subsidies are handed out like liquorice. These are not tax breaks or incentives such as the first time buyer scheme, which give people a reason to feel that their hard work is being rewarded. This is simply the act of doling out cash for no reason at all. The message is that the system is skewed and that there is inequality, especially for those caught in the middle – not wealthy enough to avoid financial stress and not within the low income threshold where so many things are subsidised.

Jostling each other on this same rock you have so many different worlds: you have people with miserable salaries facing skyrocketing prices to rent or buy a property while having to cope with the hike in food prices, and you also have those who have 2 or 3 hefty incomes in “consultancies” due to their political connections or simply as a quid pro quo. Some pay their taxes diligently down to the last cent, while others breeze by for years owing €62 million in taxes and VAT.

More and more it feels like Malta is a country with two faces – one where money is no problem, and the other where people are scrambling every day simply to survive.