Tuesday 07 December 2021

Are we back to business as usual?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

A common sentiment expressed during these past few months is that the enforced shutdown has given us a chance to do things differently.  

A mere few weeks after things started re-opening, however, it almost feels like we have simply picked up where we left off.  We’re back to the traffic, the noise, and the frenzied need to always be going somewhere, preferably in our cars.

Here was an opportunity for the Government to lead by example, but unfortunately, those in charge persist in being short-sighted and unwilling to try something new which can benefit our quality of life. It was amply proven, for example, that working from home (WFH) is do-able and productive across many sectors, especially when it comes to Government services. Yet when the clarion call came from the PM to “get back to work” it was clear that he meant people should physically go back to the office.  I think there is also a certain generational reluctance among top management who harbour this misguided perception that working from your home, or from any place where there is a wifi connection for that matter, is a way to skive off. Nothing could be further from the truth but nothing will dissuade them otherwise either.

The Government said it will be reducing electricity bills for businesses “to encourage people to go to work and not to stay home.” Again, this skewed perspective does not acknowledge the considerable productivity of those who prefer the WFH option, and who should likewise benefit from reductions on their utility bills.   

There are, of course, people who hate WFH and who were climbing the walls, deprived of the social interaction which is provided by the workplace environment. They also sorely missed the daily routine of getting dressed in office wear and leaving the house, which is admittedly part of the whole attraction of going to work.  However, for those who discovered that WFH gave them additional flexibility and even provided them with a better work-life balance, because they had cut out their daily commute, it should have remained an option. 

Having said this, I have a feeling that Robert Abela’s announcement for everyone to get back to work involved other ulterior motives. First of all, if you do not have people driving their cars to and from work, petrol stations will suffer a drop in revenue, as they undoubtedly did over the last few months.  Secondly, if office workers are not out and about during the day, the possibility of restaurants, cafes and takeaways drumming up any business will be severely curtailed because people will simply eat their meals and drink their espresso lungos at home, as they have been doing since March.

While from an economic point of view I can understand the PM’s decision to tell everyone to roll up their sleeves and get cracking, I still think that this could have been handled in a better way so that the environment is not always relegated to the back burner. I read a charming news story a few weeks ago about a community of cyclists who used the opportunity of having empty roads to teach others in their neighbourhood how to ride bicyles. Why couldn’t this excellent idea have been adopted on a national scale and promoted by the authorities as one of the new ways of doing things, post-Covid 19?  We all know the answer to that one. It is because, as we have seen time and again, the Labour Government is so intent on pleasing big business that it persistently refuses to please the ordinary Joe. 

Construction, which has drilled, excavated, jackhammered and pounded our senses unabated while we were holed up in our homes, continues to be a constant eyesore, the purpose of which never ceases to baffle me. With a reported 10,000 foreign nationals who have been repatriated, and with our tourist season taking a severe hit, the million dollar question in my mind is always: who on earth are all these apartment units for?  Covid or no Covid, it seems to be business as usual for the big conglomerates, although without the extra injection into the population of thousands who worked, paid taxes, and spent their money here, it is a mystery how all these sprawling new developments will thrive.

The same can be said for all the hotels, shops, restaurants, cafes and entertainment venues which have sprung up over the last few years  They made sense when Malta was bursting with people and entrepreneurs were all making money hand over fist, but today, with everyone being more cautious about their spending and prioritising their expenditure, no one can take anything for granted any more. In this sense I see the point of distributing vouchers to be spent at these places because if people hang on to their money out of fear of job instability, it will throw the whole country into a recession. Businesses will shut down, more will lose their jobs and Abela will be facing an angry population which has been deprived in one fell swoop from the golden future and ‘best of times’ promised to them not so long ago.  

I’ve seen comments to the effect that the vouchers should have been made redeemable at supermarkets and food stores as well, but here I beg to differ, because if there is one sector which was entirely not affected it was grocery shopping.  With everyone at home demanding constant meals and snacks, and many cooking up a storm as a way to alleviate the boredom and stress, supermarkets could barely keep up with the online deliveries. The vouchers are intended to get the economy going again by supporting businesses which were forced to close – and keeping these businesses alive represents jobs. 

Where I do believe the vouchers could have been used is to buy tickets for cultural events once these start being held again.  This sector, which has already suffered in the past from being the Cinderella of public funding, is in real danger of being in its final death throes.  Not only was the excellent Valletta Film Festival axed due to lack of funding but it has now been ‘replaced’ by a Cinema City event, organised by the Valletta Cultural Agency, which will show six blockbuster films instead.  It is depressing to note that those in charge are unable to appreciate the important contribution which the film festival had made, not only by showcasing the unique venues scattered throughout the capital city but by putting Malta on the map of quality European cinema festivals.  

What I really cannot understand is why it had to be either/or.  They could have shown the blockbuster films (which are only running for four days anyway) and then follow them up by showing Art house films which cater for a different audience. But when the Arts Council slashed funding for the festival by 30%, forcing the original cancellation, you just know that the Arts are definitely not the priority of this Government.  As The Grain Foundation rightly pointed out, the Government should be “supporting cultural entrepreneurs, artists and filmmakers to develop, exhibit and/or perform their work”.  After all, what else can nourish the human spirit if not the enriching experiences provided by the Arts?   

As we look to the future, will it also be business as usual in the way we treat foreign nationals when (or if) they come back here for work?  If the Fortina/TACA construction workers story is anything to go by, I don’t hold out much hope. Fortina Contracting terminated its relationship with Taca Construction after workers went on strike claiming the Turkish company had failed to pay their wages.  As fingers continue to be pointed, the bottom line is that these men were not paid. Of course, it has not been lost on anyone that Fortina is the same company which owns Captain Morgan, which raked in thousands in taxpayer money for allowing its boats to be used to accommodate the immigrants out at sea during the recent stand-off with the EU.  

Despite Muscat’s predictions (in what seems another lifetime) yes, something did happen which hit the pause button on the economy. So this is a good a time as any to take stock. Over the last seven years, too many Third Country Nationals as well as EU nationals have come here, lured by the prospect of a sunny, friendly island where the living is easy, only to be met by people who seemed determined to exploit them and make their lives hell.  This could possibly be a chance for us to start over again with a clean slate. 

We need to establish just how many foreign nationals the island can realistically accommodate in terms of infrastructure. Those who do settle here should be helped in every possible way to cut through the bureaucracy, but above all to ensure that they are all employed legally, and that their N.I. is being paid, to avoid the scenarios of employers simply firing them, leaving them destitute and unable to qualify for Government aid.  If we do not implement some form of mechanism of this nature we will find ourselves once again bursting at the seams, crowding each other in a frankly unsustainable situation.  And we would have learned absolutely nothing.

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