Saturday 01 April 2023

Coming here as a Third Country National? Just don’t bother

The Labour Government’s decision to base the country’s economic success on recruiting foreign workers from just about anywhere has been a double-edged sword.

Prior to the pandemic, so many people were making money hand over fist that little attention was being paid to the implications of what this would mean to an overcrowded, mismanaged, undisciplined country with infrastructure which could not handle the numbers pouring in. The murmurs and disgruntlement against “too many foreigners” had already started but they were drowned out by those who were too busy living it up.

And while Covid shut the world down for a few years, most sectors have now returned to normal and, as time goes by, the hostility against “the foreigner” has continued to grow unabated. The wave of hatred is often so aggressive that it takes one aback. This can be attributed to one pertinent shift. According to data collected by Malta Today, the pandemic marked a significant change in the workforce, with a massive dip in EU nationals accompanied by a higher 26% growth in Third Country national workers, mainly in the low-level jobs which pay minimum wage. The skewed perception (which is often echoed in other countries) is that “they are taking our jobs”. Are they really though, when local unemployment is at an all time low?

While many are still profiting from this economic model, it is often these same people who complain against anyone who is not Maltese and specifically against TCNs; they just about tolerate them because they have to, but it is with a grudging resentment. The prejudice runs straight across the board but it is interesting (and ironic) that it is Labour voters who are the most unhappy with this situation, when it is their own party which created this situation.

According to a Malta Today survey, ‘foreigners living in Malta’ is the third highest concern at 13.3% for those who voted for the PL in the last general election. It is also the third highest concern among non-voters at 11.5% – which could basically mean both disenchanted Labour and Nationalist voters. However, it did not register among the top five concerns for those who voted PN in the last election who cited Justice and criminality, Corruption, Cost of living, Lack of enforcement and Inconvenience from construction in that order. (Justice and crime were also named as the top concern for Labour voters and non-voters).

So what does this mean in real terms? It would be interesting to probe this concern and ask people exactly what they mean by the generic phrase ‘foreigners living in Malta’. In an ideal world I suppose this could mean they would prefer the way Malta was before we joined the EU when people simply came here as tourists, spent their money and left. But let’s not forget that the majority voted for EU membership, and rightly so, for the opportunities and doors it would open up – but even as they cast their vote, many were conveniently forgetting that just as the Maltese could now live and work anywhere in Europe, the same would apply the other way round. The mounting annoyance and irritation at going to shops and restaurants only to be met by Italians, Spaniards and every other EU national one can think of was (for some) already enough to make them grind their teeth. Now that so many EU nationals have been replaced by TCNs, the annoyance has changed to anger. Suffice to say that by 2021, the amount of gainfully employed Third Country Nationals in Malta had reached 43,500, well over the 34,000 EU nationals in the Maltese workforce.

Let’s be blunt: Many don’t want “them” here even though in many sectors, “they” are literally keeping the country going – at least from what I can see. How else can one explain that even at my friendly neighbourhood pastizzi shop, the guy serving behind the counter is Indian and now has enough of a conversational grasp of Maltese to be able to communicate with the most earthy Maltese workman? According to the data which has been compiled, if we leave aside Italy, from which the largest number of EU nationals hail, it is the Philippines and India which are providing Malta with its largest number of workers.

This dichotomy between the feelings of the man in the street, and the modus operandi of the “man” (or agency) actively importing these TCNs came to a head this week with the story of one particular Indian national . But in reality, his story is probably not a one-off and I would not be surprised if it is being repeated throughout the country as we speak. In fact, I feel quite sure that it is.

Kiran Puttalingaiah, aged 31, is from Southern India and arrived in Malta last year to work at a restaurant, planning to earn enough to have his wife and daughter eventually join him. However, his boss did not register him as an employee and was paying him in cash. The employer also became Kiran’s landlord, housing him in what was basically a garage, and a large part of his pay was deducted for rent. When he was not paid and turned to DIER for help he was informed that he was not registered. It was only thanks to Patricia Graham, an activist who has helped countless TCNs, that enough funds were raised for him to go back home. And if you are wondering, yes, he has named and shamed the restaurant, but only once he was safely out of the country – who can blame him for being afraid after being treated so abysmally?

As it turns out, Kiran was one of the “lucky” ones as he did not come through an agency, because those who come through an agency end up owing thousands of Euros which have to be paid back. When the registration of their employment takes months to be finalised they are stuck in Malta with no job and with a debt to pay, in what amounts to extortion. This is why so many end up working illegally. This is why we have now created a strata of society which is living in shocking poverty; people shivering in clothes not meant for winter and wearing flip flops without socks in this biting cold. If you are not seeing this poverty, then you are not actually looking. Or if you are looking then you are not actually seeing these workers and thinking of them as people made of flesh and blood like me and you. it is also easy to dismiss their plight with a dismissive, “well, who told them to came here?”

Good question. I suggest you direct that question to every Labour politician you meet. After all, it is this administration which is responsible, and no one else. The answer may also be found in the following information provided following a Parliamentary question: Social security contributions by foreign nationals totalled more than €200 million in 2021, a six-fold increase over 2012. In fact, over the years we have been told, over and over, that without foreign workers there will not be enough money to cover pensions and other social benefits in the future.

It doesn’t take much imagination to connect the dots..single men (and women) coming here without their families, desperate for a job which even though it is only minimum wage pays more than they could ever dream of. Employers get their cheap labour, TCNs earn a livelihood, but it is hardly a win/win. On closer inspection, it is clear that the only ones really reaping the rewards are those who see these workers as expendable and disposable. And instead of stepping in and cutting out the abuse, the Government is turning a blind eye because N.I. contributions keep coming in and “the economic wheel is turning”. More significantly for the public purse, the many foreign workers who come here for a short time and then move on will never benefit from the social security they have paid. In reality, if the authorities really wanted to, this whole sector could be easily regulated and loopholes tightened so that no one ends up in the same predicament as Kiran. But as in many other areas where there is rampant abuse, there is no real will to do so.

Personally, I would tell TCNs thinking of coming here for “a better life”, to just not bother.

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