Saturday 04 February 2023

In an unjust society, poverty and privilege live side by side

This column first appeared in Malta Today

Every week I go to my newsagent to collect my Sunday papers (because I’m old school in that way and reading the actual hard copy is a ritual which cannot be replicated by online scrolling). Inevitably, waiting patiently in a queue, there are always a number of men of different nationalities, usually but not exclusively Third Country Nationals (TCNs), who are there to send money back home to their families via Western Union.

Just as invariably, the same thought pops into my head: how can they afford to send money to their families when (a) they are probably earning minimum wage (b) the cost of living in Malta is so high, especially when it comes to renting. When I asked around, people who are in direct contact with this segment of our population quickly gave me the answers: first, they are sharing the rent, sometimes living 8 or ten in an apartment. Secondly, they often work 2 or 3 jobs and finally, they get by because they only spend around €50 per month on food. When I wondered how the latter was even possible I was told,

“Those who work in hotels eat at the canteen, they don’t go to restaurants or bars, they don’t go on holidays. They earn €1200 for 280 hours of work and send €800 back home.”

It’s hard for us to comprehend this kind of life (or shall I say, existence?), sitting here in our relatively privileged positions. Let us leave aside the top 1% who are wealthy; in Malta, even the middle class lives in comfortable, spacious homes with households ranging from 2 – 5 people, there is plenty of food in the fridge, wardrobes are bursting with clothes, they have all the latest appliances, a couple of cars, and a lifestyle which includes frequent socialising, dining out and annual holidays. As for the working class, our strong welfare system ensures that, generally speaking, while they might not be able to afford luxuries and are sometimes described as living in ‘relative poverty’, they still have all the basic necessities.

The real poverty in Malta is now a whole new stratum in the country’s socio-economic demographic, and when we refer to the ‘new poor’ it has taken on another dimension. A recent listing for a rental property in Qormi boasted that it could accommodate 22 people in a flat containing seven bedrooms and three bathrooms. Despite this claim, the photos showed what looked like a large living/dining area equipped with bunkbeds, and a corridor which had been turned into a makeshift kitchenette with a table and six chairs. My guess is that the “seven bedrooms” were basically every room in the house including the kitchen being turned into a “bedroom”, to cram as many people as possible under one roof. But the real clincher was the price – €260 per BED. I will let you work the math out yourself to see how much this greedy landlord is potentially earning by treating human beings like cattle.

As I write, I can already hear some of the naysayers with their usual rigamarole: “well, who asked them to come here in the first place?”

I suggest they direct that question to the Government which has brought about this situation through its insistence that we need foreign workers “to keep the economy going” and to ensure that in the future there will be enough money in the kitty for pensions. After that, the people asking this question and who are so quick to be callous about anything “foreign” (especially TCNs) should ask themselves how many times they have used the services of these very same people. Is your parent in a care home or has a live-in carer? Then chances are they are being cared for by a “foreigner”. Do you order Bolt food every Friday or Saturday night? Take a look at who your food courier is when he brings you your delivery in all sorts of weather. Have you had some maintenance or renovation done in your home lately or have perhaps bought a new apartment on plan which is still being built – it is very likely that the construction workers are every nationality under the sun, except Maltese. So while the Government set up the conditions for this scenario, it is our current expectations and aspirations which have fed into it and kept it going. Our hospitals, our public transport, our cabs, our waste collection, servers at restaurants, hotel staff – so many essential jobs are being done by foreign nationals that if they all had to magically disappear overnight, most of the island would probably shut down.

May I add that these are not the EU nationals who have freedom of movement and have the right to work here, but the additional thousands who come here on a work visa lured by promises of good pay (although none of the agencies actually explain that they will have to work like dogs at more than one job and live hand to mouth). We can all see that there is a lucrative racket going on – the TCN employment agencies, the companies which hire these workers for miserable wages and the landlords who are rubbing their hands with glee as they cash in on these people’s sheer desperation to find affordable accommodation. Everything points back to the authorities who have done zilch to regulate what is effectively a cycle of slave labour and who have created this new “imported” poverty, for want of a better word.

What is worse, the recent decision by Bolt Food to no longer accept self-employed drivers works against Maltese and EU nationals because they must now register as an employee of a work agency which gets a commission.

Meanwhile, as the privileged complain in indignant tones about the infiltration of “these” people, they are not directing their anger where it belongs – against those who are exploiting TCNs and becoming obscenely rich in the process.

Getting to know you

A recent meme on FB referred to what women should discuss with their prospective partner before getting married. It was quite a lengthy list, and while talking about these issues is healthy, the possibility of agreeing on every one of them is a bit far-fetched, unless you have created your own clone. One also has to bear in mind that over the years we all change, and our views can change too. So, compromise, agreeing to disagree and basically just letting the other person be themselves instead of trying to change him/her, are all crucial.

However, this post and the ensuing conversation got me thinking about what the basic issues one should really agree on are. I have whittled them down to three things which in my view, tell you a lot about a person and cover a lot of ground. 1. A person’s attitude to money, 2. Their parenting style and 3. whether their core value system agrees with yours. Obviously other people will have other issues which they consider to be more important “deal breakers”.

Unfortunately, we hear of too many relationships which fall apart where you wonder how the person did not see (or take heed) of the signs which were there at the beginning. Of course, as they say, hindsight is 20/20, and falling in love can often mar your judgement which is why many advocate living with a person before marriage so that their ‘true colours’ come out. But this is no guarantee either, because if you have children with someone, it is irrelevant whether you are married or not as they will be in your life forever.

In an ideal world, if things don’t work out and both sides agree that they are not compatible, one can be civil about it, walk away and move on. In reality, however, divorce tends to brings out the worst in people, evoking spite, malice, and a thirst for revenge with money and assets being used as weapons, or what is worse, using their own children to vindicate themselves against their former spouse.

So we have to be realistic …it is impossible to learn every facet of a person when one is in the throes of a new romance. At the beginning, it is also very easy to say what someone wants to hear and, the truth is, getting to really know someone can take years. It is especially impossible to predict the future – physical and mental health issues, the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one or other trauma, these can all affect the dynamics of a relationship. We cannot really even fathom how we ourselves will cope with the stress and anxiety which life throws our way, let alone try to anticipate how our other half will deal with it. Sometimes these events can irrevocably break the relationship and sometimes you just have to hang on to each other and push through it.

So while Facebook memes and quotes are all well and good to initiate discussion, life is a bit more complicated than that, and human beings are certainly much too complex to be reduced to a mere checklist.

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