Wednesday 22 May 2024

How do you solve the problem of job vacancies?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

We seem to be going round in a vicious circle when it comes to the issue of the labour market. The two sides of the fence are either being deliberately obtuse in failing to understand the arguments being presented, or else there is a complete lack of understanding of (1) the growing public resentment and hostility against foreigners and (2) the staff shortage realities which employers are facing.

Let’s start with number 2. Everywhere you look new businesses/shops are being opened. For example, in the popular area of Naxxar square, I recently counted at least five outlets which have closed down for various reasons, but which not long afterwards were re-opened either on the same lines or else as a complete change of use. When I see this, the question that pops into my head is always the same: apart from those which are purely family-run enterprises, where are they finding all the staff required to man the relevant shops? The same question (but with more burning intensity) reverberates constantly whenever I see all these ambitious plans to keep ruining Malta with applications for more hotels, more shopping malls, more, more, more.

This question is quickly answered, of course, by (then JobsPlus CEO, now Finance Minister) Clyde Caruana’s economic model for job vacancies to be filled by foreign workers “in order for future generations to have a pension”. While he may be ruing the day he proposed this model, it has been full steam ahead for those who have religiously adopted it to a T. It has suited many enterprising sharks who immediately saw a golden opportunity, namely the agencies which have been created to import Third Country Nationals; an exploitative situation which I have written about countless times.

According to figures published a few days ago by Eurostat, the EU’s statistical arm, Malta (along with Lithuania and Portugal) recorded the highest growth in the number of people in employment (+1.3%) among EU states in the second quarter of this year. To put that into some kind of perspective, that is five times more than the 0/.2% average in the Euro Zone.

To spell this out in even more plain language, that means that, even at a time when unemployment is at an all-time low, businesses are somehow managing to find staff. Now, unless unemployed Maltese adults have suddenly started falling from the sky, or we got into a Time Machine and forced couples from 20-40 years ago to have larger families, that means many of today’s staff shortages are being filled by – you guessed it – non-Maltese. You can’t blame employers who are in desperate need of staff to accept any solution offered rather than see their business go belly up due to not enough catering staff or sales people, just to mention two sectors. In fact, the common lament among employers is that very few CVs from locals are landing on their desk, and if we take a look at the statistics of the bloated public sector, you don’t exactly need to be Sherlock to piece it together and understand why.

To quote Eurostat again, Malta’s public sector employed over 51,000 full-time people by the end of 2022. This number is an increase of 1,000 people over the previous six months, and an average increase of about 20% over the last decade.

According to Eurostat, it is evident that Malta’s public sector has almost 20% of the total workforce, compared to the European Union (EU) average of 16%.

Apart from creating a dire staff shortage for public enterprise which has had to resort to employing foreign workers or else close shop, the end result of stuffing the civil service with unqualified people, doling out jobs as political favours rather than based on merit, is that government departments are a hit-and-miss affair. I have had excellent experiences with various departments (sometimes to my astonishment because I always prepare myself for the worst) and I have also had to to grapple with hopelessly disorganised departments, which for now shall remain nameless, lest they dump my (relatively innocuous) case in some forgotten back room out of sheer spite.

Which brings me to point number 1. There has been the inevitable (and very predictable) counter-reaction to so many people coming here for work, not because they are EU and therefore have the right (like we have the right to work anywhere in the EU), but because they are being targeted specifically to come here in an elaborate scheme involving arrangements between private agencies and government entities. This has cascaded into indirect profiteering by others who saw a cash cow and quickly pounced. I understand the resentment, I honestly do, but the anger is misplaced. If there was no work for them here, why would so many TCNs have flooded the country?

There are those who argue that (in some cases, not all) they are being employed instead of Maltese because they accept minimum wage and terrible conditions – but again, who is employing them under such conditions, if not your fellow compatriots?

Where the two sides are not seeng each other’s viewpoint is that while Malta’s social fabric has been undeniably altered by an influx of TCNs, it is these very TCNs which provide us with the many services we have now become used to, especially after Covid. Just to mention one example, we have been pampered and spoiled for choice with a plethora of cafes/restaurants on every corner…can we go back to just one or two per village? Do we even want to, or do we like the anticipation of the next trendy place opening up so that we can sample something new?

Can we bear to do without ordering our Saturday night takeaway from the comfort of our homes, so that the much-maligned Bolt food couriers are no more?

With so many elderly relatives living to a ripe old age (which is a good thing) are we ready to be their full-time carers, bringing them to live with us, or siblings taking it in turns to go sleep with them, as used to happen in the past?

For every group of TCNs we see strolling along our streets (a sight which consumes some people with uncontrollable rage) we must realise that this represents a job/service they are providing, filling vacancies which needed to be filled. Someone offered them the job, or the promise of one while dangling a work visa and residency in front of them. The low unemployment statistics are there and the vacancies are there too – we are not a country where people are struggling because there is no work to be found. It could almost be said we have become victims of our own economic boom.

Meanwhile, over in cloud cuckoo land, PM Robert Abela has finally woken up to the growing rumblings from the public (including the Labour core vote). He was reported as saying that “we will stand up to the operators who ..continue to base their business model on the importation of foreign workers who are returned to their home country when they’ve had enough of them… we are not willing to accept this mode of employment.”

When he says these things, he really makes me laugh…who on earth is in charge around here anyway? Who has allowed this state of affairs, if not his own administration?

The Home Affairs Minister has confirmed that the government has embarked on a series of measures to try to limit the number of non-EU nationals living in Malta. In response, the employers sounded their own warning: “Before reducing the number of foreign workers in Malta, the authorities need to come up with a strategy that addresses a shortage of prospective employees.”

Locking the gate after the horse has bolted, too little too late, no use crying over spilt milk – so many proverbs spring to mind. They all point to the crux of the problem in this country which we see time and again – the failure to plan and to think long-term about the consequences when it comes to national policy