Sunday 19 September 2021

Staff shortages in the time of Corona

This column first appeared in Malta Today

The shortage of staff in the catering industry is being keenly felt for a variety of reasons.  The most obvious reason is that when the pandemic outbreak occurred last year, followed by the first lockdown, there was an exodus of foreign nationals who simply went home, some out of choice, others out of economic necessity because they lost their jobs.   Those TCNs who were being employed illegally ’under the table’ found they were not entitled to the wage supplement because they were not in the system and they lost more than their jobs; they lost everything. 

It is common knowledge that for several years Serbia and other Balkan states have been the source of many economic migrants who filled the vacancies in several sectors.  According to the Malta-Serbian Chamber of Commerce, “Workers from overall former Yugoslavia estimated to some 70 thousand, including seasonal workers, in the pre-pandemic era a year and a half ago, most of whom come from Serbia. They now number to less than a quarter of that number.”

When the lockdown was lifted and the airport and catering establishments opened again, those who had left could not return because at first Serbia and North Macedonia were not included in Malta’s updated Amber list.  (It was even worse for those who had remained in Malta because they could not travel home to visit their families or have their families visit them here leading to a petition being circulated which quickly gathered over 5000 signatures). However, on 15 June these countries were included in the list where a vaccine certificate issued by the Maltese authorities would be deemed as valid for re-entry into Malta.  

This still did not quite solve the staff shortage problem, however, as up until last week, vaccine certificates from Serbia were not being recognised.  This situation prompted the President of the Malta-Serbian Chamber of Commerce to make a statement in which he questioned why vaccine certificates from UK citizens (who are now also non-EU) are recognised but those of the Balkan states are not.  It was a valid and pertinent question especially as he justifiably pointed out, “The Serbians, Macedonians, Bosnians and Montenegrins deserve better treatment and respect from Malta. Malta owes them for their contribution to its economy and cannot keep treating them like invisible objects over and over again.”

(On 21 July, the MTA finally announced that Malta will start accepting COVID vaccine certificates issued by Serbia as well as Gibraltar, Jersey and Guernsey. This will perhaps alleviate some of the problems of those who went to Serbia when the pandemic broke out, and who wish to return to their old jobs.)

Of course, the lack of respect and dignity towards foreign employees, particularly those in the lower income bracket, is not restricted to this demographic.  The Philippine and Indian community, for example, have made it possible to run our many care homes, as well as to fill the vacancies for home help from carers for the elderly to nannies. Take a closer look at the people delivering your takeaway on a Saturday night, the cashiers at your local large chain supermarket and the taxi and bus drivers. Just like that now famous photo showing what would happen if the England team did not include children of immigrants,  so too would Malta’s workforce and the ability for the country’s infrastructure to function be depleted if, as some arrogantly and rudely demand, “we got rid of foreigners”.   To add insult to injury, many of these working in these sectors are not only badly paid but are treated in an appalling manner which belies the often fancy adverts which the company that employs them uses to promote their business. 

The inhumane working conditions combined with a minimum wage (and some barely get that) are a result of either new businesses which want to get rich quick or else long established ones which want to increase their bottom line, and squeeze as much profit out of their venture as possible.  

On the other side of the coin are decent employers who have treated their staff well, but who are desperately trying to cope as they are being faced with employees who quit at short notice to move to another job because there are currently a lot of vacancies to pick and choose from, making it an employees’ market.  The dearth of staff can be felt wherever you go, and is a topic of conversation among all those in the hospitality industry.  Some restaurants have even had to choose whether to open for lunch or dinner.  Hotels, which are finally seeing a return to some form of tourism, are girding their loins and wondering how they are going to be able to run their establishment when things get really busy.

When one thinks about how we got ourselves into the position of having to actively encourage people from abroad to come and work here, the answer is simple. Put in a nutshell, the economy grew too fast without any planning (and in some cases, due to shady dealings). The paradox we have in front of us is that most of the Maltese population is quite happy to have an abundance of cafes, restaurants, hotels, shopping malls and supermarkets to choose from, but seems to be oblivious to the fact that if we had to only rely on native Maltese to be employed in these industries, it would be impossible. 

The next most obvious question is: so why aren’t the Maltese doing these jobs?  Well, on the whole it seems to me we have become a rather pampered, entitled nation. Raise your hands all those whose first job was at minimum wage.  I am one of them, and I accepted that state of affairs because I knew it was just a stepping stone until I got some work experience and further qualifications to put on my resume’.   Many my age did the same, mostly because there weren’t that many jobs to go around and also because our parents had instilled in us the value of having a good work ethic. The unspoken rule was that you don’t get money doled out to you for no reason, but you have to work for it.   Summer used to be a time when Sixth Form and University students all had seasonal jobs in order to supplement their stipends….what ever happened to that practice?  Frankly, there is nothing guaranteed to make you appreciate an education more than having to slog away for a while at a minimum wage job. (Having said that, I was still able to save enough to buy my first second-hand car because the cost of living was much, much cheaper.) 

From what I am told, however, apart from the miserable pay, no one wants to work in catering any more because of the unsociable hours (you can basically forget your evenings, weekends and public holidays).  

So how did Malta cope before this whole economic boom? How did we manage to get by? Call it becoming a victim of its own success or a classic vicious circle: We need so many people to fill the many vacancies because we have too much of everything, and we keep opening up new places so we keep needing more people. We keep building more flats in the assumption that the entire population of India or Serbia will come here to work for measly wages and share one apartment between ten people.  But then you get the usual xenophobic complaints about “too many foreigners” who are blamed for everything which goes wrong.

I think it is time we asked ourselves some hard questions: do we really need 20 coffee shops, restaurants and takeaway outlets within a one mile radius, when most towns and villages used to get by perfectly well with just one or two?  Do we need so many shopping malls and supermarkets which have forced small, long-established family businesses to close?  For economic growth to flourish it also has to be sustainable in terms of human resources, and right now that does not seem to be the case. 

Do we want a charming Mediterranean island or just another sprawling city metropolis with no character?  Right now the only reprieve we can hope to obtain from the constant noise, over-population, traffic and non-stop building are small pockets of untouched authenticity along the coast where we can rest our eyes as we gaze outwards towards the sea.  So, as we sip our overpriced frappucinos and lattes at the latest trendy cafe, oblivious to the underpaid workers serving us, the over-riding question has to be…is this the kind of country we really want?

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