Tuesday 07 December 2021

Pricing themselves out of the market

This column first appeared in Malta Today

We have been patient, we have supported them with our custom, and certainly the Government vouchers have also helped to encourage dining out, but I think it is time to re-evaluate just what is happening with a lot of eating establishments and their exorbitant prices. 

Certainly, as a country we do not need much prompting to book a table for lunch or dinner.  Going out to eat is our default position when socialising with friends and family.  Birthdays, anniversaries, reunions, re-connecting with old friends or getting to know new ones – any excuse is a good excuse to dine out or grab a coffee.

So why is that some in the catering industry keep pushing up their prices every time we blink (or so it seems).  I do not say this lightly, and I wouldn’t say it if it were only my observation – but a cursory look at online comments confirms that not only have some started charging eye-watering prices, but the decline in service and food quality seems to have deteriorated at the same pace. Basically, in too many places, we are paying more money for mediocre food and abysmal treatment.  Some of the accounts I have read sound like an episode of Fawlty Towers, complete with an arrogant Basil, a shrieking Sybil and Manuel the clueless waiter who goes round saying “Que?”

I have heard all the arguments on the other side of the coin: the losses experienced by business owners during the pandemic, their expensive overheads and the exodus of trained staff and yes, I can empathise, but only up to a point. You see, what baffles me is that those who have gone on holiday abroad are constantly raving about the (a) cheap prices (d) delicious food (c) excellent service. It’s the same chorus whether they’ve gone to Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Spain or visited our nearest neighbours, Sicily and Italy. So how come other countries can do it, but we cannot?  After all, haven’t all Mediterranean tourist resorts like ours all suffered a blow over the last 18 months and are still trying to recover? And yet, here they are, managing to do it without fleecing their customers…

That is the most exasperating (and infuriating) aspect of all this.  Rather than rewarding those who are keeping the economic wheels turning, it often feels like we are being punished instead by being forced to pay through the nose for the privilege of frequenting their establishments.  Luckily, there is a wide choice of places to choose from and we can vote with our feet, which is what many are doing.  I just hope that those who are pricing themselves out of the market realise, before it is too late, that they have brought this on themselves. 

Time to have different types of prisons

The shocking description of how a young woman, convicted for fraud and theft because of her drug habit, ended up committing suicide allegedly because of the cruel treatment of two warders, was horrific to read. The two warders have since been charged with involuntary homicide because when the woman threatened to kill herself, they gave her a blanket and a pair of jogging trousers, which she used for the suicide attempt. She was found unconscious and died in hospital three weeks later.

A lot has been said about how the prison is being run with an iron fist by the current Prison Director, and that the warders’ behaviour was a direct result of his extreme regimental style which some have described as sadistic.  The story recounted by the young woman’s father rang uncomfortably true, especially when he said, “there was a particular correctional officer who picked on her regularly and called her tal-pepe’ [a snob] because she spoke in English.” Unfortunately, yes, this type of ignorant mentality still exists all around us so I do not find it at all surprising to find that it prevails among those who wear a uniform.  

With 13 suicides in a period of two years, there have been urgent calls for an independent inquiry into the management of the prison, and repeated insistence that the Prison Director should be removed. Apart from an inquiry, however, I think what is also crucially needed is for different types of prisons to be created which separate hardened murderers and criminals from those who have committed lesser crimes and white collar crimes.  I have never understood how you can possibly lump everyone together under one roof in one facility, overseen by prison guards who have been toughened up by years of dealing with the worst specimens of human nature. 

The right type of person at the top, as well as specifically trained guards, would need to be employed at these new prisons, depending on the type of criminals they are dealing with. Above all, it goes without saying, that they need to be educated to do their job properly rather than be allowed to mercilessly bully a prisoner simply because of the way she talks. 

Best gridlocks in town, brought to you by Ian 

This weekend and throughout this week, you are advised to avoid the much-heralded Central Link project which has now reached the height of mayhem. If you live in Attard, you have my endless sympathy, and I trust that you have stocked up on provisions as access to your home is systematically blocked off from any possible route.  

“It will be ready soon” we have been told time and again throughout this long, hot summer, and yet here we are approaching the beginning of the scholastic year, and the area still looks like it has been hit by missiles. Meanwhile, navigating all the diversions always feels like being in some elaborate board game where you have to hazard a guess about which road is open, as the traffic signs keep changing each week. By Friday, gridlocked traffic was already at its peak between Qormi, Żebbug, Attard and Rabat – which is ironic considering that this is the very area for which the Central Link project was conceived (to supposedly improve traffic flow), in the first place.  Those billboards telling us how much travel time we are saving and that the project will cut fuel emissions by 13.5% are not looking so great now, huh? 

One hopes that the claim that this project just requires the last layer of tarmac before it is finally finished is, in fact, the case.  With Ian, you never know. There might just be a few more areas which need to be covered by concrete or even re-done again…. you know, in order to keep all those men in neon highlighter yellow vests looking terribly busy so that we can oooh and aaaah that he is indeed the Minister who #getsthingsdone.  He sure knows how to make people swear that’s for sure, as can be seen by the unilateral decision to close off much of the access to southbound lanes for those exiting Swieqi.  The Mayor of Swieqi aptly expressed the frustrations of the residents: 

“The Swieqi Local Council was only informed yesterday afternoon by Infrastructure Malta that they are placing concrete barriers in the centre of Triq Sant’Andrija, even while discussions on alternative solutions were still ongoing. This will mean that ALL traffic coming out of Swieqi from Triq il-Qasam and Triq l-Ibrag cannot now go South towards St. Julians, but has to go North up to the recent roundabout below Triq Perkursur, (which is already not coping) and then turn back. Moreover eventually entry into Swieqi will be from Triq l-Ibrag only since they plan to make Qasam and Dris one way out. This is sheer madness from many aspects, and it hits strongly in the face all that the Local Council has been fighting for over many months. This is untenable now and will certainly create chaos and havoc when the nearby schools open. The Council keeps incessantly requesting Infrastructure Malta to take heed of our concerns and amend their plans to meet our proposals, but we are being systematically ignored. Infrastructure Malta’s attitude towards the well-being of our residents is deplorable.”

Once upon a time, local councils were created to voice the concerns of residents because they know what is best for their town or village. But seeing the way Minster Ian Borg just mows everyone down with his penchant for putting up concrete blocks (another juicy contract perhaps?), it makes you wonder whether this is all just a plan to eventually make local councils irrelevant and dissolve them altogether. 

As for the Central Link project, if you are approaching anywhere near that area over the next few days, you better keep a picnic cooler handy in your car with drinks and snacks and make sure your phone is charged to keep us all updated …oh, and take a good book, gridlocks are perfect for catching up on your reading.  

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