This column first appeared in Malta Today
Every time something shocking happens, the platitudes trip off the tongues of politicians (and other people) very easily. Even launching a fundraiser is guaranteed to get the public to open their wallets and donate for a good cause and the money is raised astonishingly quickly.
All of this is well and good: after all, a man being dumped on the side of the road like a sack of potatoes instead of being taken to hospital after falling from a construction site, should not just be another news story which we scroll past nonchalantly as we sip our smoothies. In the case of Jaiteh Lamin, all I can say is that if what happened to him had not elicited a widespread, outraged, vociferous reaction, it would have heralded the final nail in the coffin of our nation’s soul.
The amount of money raised within a few days to help this man who was treated so abysmally was also heartwarming and restored my faith – €20k shows that many people really do care. However, it is also true that, as welcome as it is, clicking on a link to send money is not enough either because it just too easy to donate and then get on with our lives.
The real challenge facing us is to change the mentality of those who think that the way he (and many others TCNs) was treated, is in any way justifiable or excusable. We have all been around people who talk disparagingly and scathingly about ‘these foreigners’ (for which read Third Country Nationals, especially those with a different skin colour), and personally, I either end up in a heated debate or have to physically remove myself from the conversation because I become too stressed and nauseated. And please do not assume that these voices dripping with contempt only belong to a certain type of Maltese person either, because this spiteful ignorance and racism can be found among all educational backgrounds and cuts right through the whole social spectrum.
Having said that, I also refuse to parrot the phrase “this is what we have become” because no, the majority of us Maltese are NOT like this. I refuse to believe that most are callous and heartless although sometimes the comments on social media tend to veer towards that conclusion. We often forget, however, that Facebook offers us just a slice of what is out there and unfortunately, those who are quick to type out hateful, racist remarks seem to have a lot of time on their hands which they use to spread their toxic words, like poisonous tentacles, on every page. In fact, if you pay attention to the names, it is always the same people who basically seem to hate everyone.
Call me idealistic, but I do believe that there is still a deep sense of compassion in most people, as can be evidenced by Caroline Galea, who stopped to help Jaiteh. Her FB post received hundreds and hundreds of positive messages and went viral. She reflects the best that there is in this country, which is why I find it depressing that the perception which most ex-pats have of us has been tainted by the likes of the contractor who dumped Jaiteh on Selmun road. In some cases, the perception is justified. In fact, most said they were not even shocked by this terrible incident because they know first-hand how Maltese treat TCNs. I think JobsPlus and DIER need to take a long, hard look at some of the comments on expat groups to see how many foreign nationals are suffering at the hands of unscrupulous employers, and the illegal employment conditions at their workplace. The situation is dire and some greedy employers have cynically exploited the desperate plight of those who will do any kind of job for any amount of money; in fact we learned that Jaiteh was working an 11 hour day for €50. Would any of you reading this accept those kind of conditions? If you would not accept it, why should someone accept it just because he is a refugee from Gambia?
On the other hand, expecting someone who is in such a precarious position to stand up to his employer is not feasible either: it is up to the authorities to be more proactive and ensure that every workplace (especially the notorious construction sites) is employing people legally. The contractor who dumped Jaiteh like an animal is now facing 20 charges, which include the breach of employment as well as health and safety laws. Surely if the proper regulations were being enforced with regular inspections, one of these many infringements would have been flagged long ago? It is useless for the PM to mouth the obligatory ‘condemnation’ when this is all happening under his watch. Forget all the rhetoric and empty promises, and just do something tangible about ensuring that those employed in the construction industry have proper working conditions.
Meanwhile, doing something about racism is more complicated because it involves peeling layers of prejudice from people’s minds. As history has shown us from Nazism and the segregation of blacks in the US, when Jews and blacks were treated like sub-human, inferior beings, it all started with little things such as a yellow star or bathrooms and restaurants reserved for ‘coloureds’. The more people joined in the discrimination, the more ‘acceptable’ it became until it was taken to the worst extremes.
The anti-racism strategy which has just been launched and which will be implemented in all Government entities is a good step. But even within our own circles we should all do our part and discourage disparaging talk and behaviour which belittles others.
If we do not stomp it out, this growing hatred will reinforce the belief that people who are in any way different do not matter, because they are “not like us”. After they have been dehumanised it then becomes easier and easier to use them as slave labour, to not care if they are working in safe conditions or get injured, and to throw them on the side of the road rather than take them for medical treatment.
Just how many people are working illegally? (In bold)
There have been several times that I have agreed with Finance Minister Clyde Caruana who seems to be a very level-headed man – recently for example, he was the first to finally admit that we cannot keep relying on construction as the main motor of the economy (like with any addiction, the first step is always to admit you have a problem).
However, another recent statement from him did not make sense. He claimed that (contrary to what employers are saying) it is not true that thousands of foreign workers left because of the pandemic, and he pointed to the similar figures of Malta’s population for 2019 and 2010 from the National Office of Statistics to substantiate his claim. However, at the same time he admitted that many foreigners pre-Covid were working in the black economy (undocumented) which basically means we have no idea how many there actually were. I do not think employers are imagining things when they say they cannot find enough staff, so logic tells me that pre-March 2020, when the island was literally heaving with people, many industries were functioning with employees who were here illegally, being paid in cash, with no work permit and not paying any N.I. When Covid-19 hit, those with no paper trail to prove they were working, which would have entitled them to the wage supplement, had to leave. In fact, the Minister estimates that around 10,000 left because of the pandemic.
As we have seen in the case of Jaiteh, illegal employment is still quite common even now, let alone before Covid. Lax or inexistent controls have created an underground economy which only leads to abuse and mistreatment of employees. A Labour Government worth its salt, whose very ethos is to protect the working class, should be ashamed for allowing this situation to escalate to this point.