Saturday 02 July 2022

We’re heading for a normal summer with abnormal staffing problems

This column first appeared in Malta Today

Before the world shut down in 2020, there seemed to be no shortage of people pouring into Malta to fill the vacancies for a plethora of jobs, especially in the hospitality and catering industry. In fact, one of the major complaints by the public was that the island had become too over-crowded and that we could not keep accepting so many economic refugees. On the other hand, we were being told that without foreign nationals propping up the economy, our welfare state would suffer, and specifically that there would not be enough people in the workforce to pay for our pensions.

Let us not forget that in a 2019 interview the then Chairman of Jobs Plus Clyde Caruana was quoted as saying that, “The current economic situation is that the economy is creating around 13,000 net jobs a year, over and above what existed the previous year. The problem is that each year, the number of natives entering the labour market is not more than 3,000. Over the years we experienced a decrease in the number of births affecting the inflow into the labour market. We need to get the other 10,000 from somewhere and that is where foreign workers come in.”

At one point, it honestly did feel that people looking for jobs were coming to Malta in their thousands. The number eventually reached 70,000, or one-third of the total workforce. However, as we soon learned, many of these employees were not able to stay in the country once Covid restrictions were imposed. They lost their jobs and many had not paid enough (or any) N.I. contributions to qualify for a wage supplement, so the exodus began.

Since then, and to this day, the staff shortage problem has never been resolved. Everywhere you look retail and catering establishments have “staff wanted” signs, and everyone in the hotel sector is crying out for staff of every description. With unemployment at an all time low, there are simply not enough local job seekers out there. Many who have come here from the EU have packed up and gone elsewhere, finding salaries are too low, and Malta becoming too expensive and unwelcoming. The fallback plan is once again, non-EU foreign workers, but as summer looms, the red tape, bureaucracy and delays in issuing work and residence permits for TCNs has employers tearing their hair out.

As the tourism sector looks forward to recouping some of its losses from the last two years, it is a mystery why a government which is so hellbent on reviving the economy is not doing anything about the workforce problem. When I speak to those affected by all this, they tell me that one of the bottlenecks is at Identity Malta; apparently even if a worker has a permit with one employer but wants to change jobs, this is not transferable, and his new employer needs to reapply for another permit. The delays do not run into weeks but months and when you are desperate for staff this situation is untenable. The other stumbling block are the recruitment agencies which advertise in third world countries making Malta sound like paradise, and charge TCNs an extortionate amount simply to apply for a Visa, only for the prospective employee to then wait months for the paperwork to come through. When employers become desperate for staff they simply employ TCNs “under the counter” without a permit, which is not only risky but opens the door wide for the abuse we read about every day.

Even those who are employed legally are often exploited. As more people became accustomed to the convenience of ordering food through an app (a popular trend which started during Covid) the demand for these drivers has continued unabated. With demand, the supply can only come from one source, and that source is undoubtedly from Third World countries whose workers are willing to accept working conditions which most of us would turn down flat. Those Bolt/Wolt drivers delivering your takeaway food work long hours, driving through horrendous often risky traffic 7 days a week in all weather conditions for a meagre pay cheque. It turned out that some recruitment agencies were pocketing 50% of the drivers’ earnings and the drivers had no basic employment benefits such as sick leave or leave. It was only when the flagrant abuse was flagged by the media that the Department for Industrial and Employment Relation this year issued guidelines that will regulate the employment status of food couriers and delivery drivers. Hopefully, these guidelines do not remain mere words on paper.

Another real issue is the quality of employees being recruited in various sectors – an influx of people who want to work is not enough because they also need to be trained for their respective jobs. Consumers are often the ones who have to bear the brunt of this real shortcoming when, for example, they are dealing with waiters who cannot communicate in English, who confuse their order, and who do not know the basics of waiting a table. Five star hotels cannot function at their high standards either if the only workers they are finding are people who have never worked in the industry but are just thrown in at the deep end. In fact, throughout the service industry where one is dealing with the public, it is not just a matter of finding ‘bodies’ to fill in the vacancies (who may or may not remain on the island) but specifically trained personnel who actually want to do the job because they enjoy doing it. They also need to be paid and treated decently. Instead what one often finds are disgruntled, rude employees who take out their unhappiness with their job situation on the hapless customer.

And let us not even get started on the construction industry where lack of training is not only an annoyance but can be downright dangerous for the workers themselves as well as anyone who visits the construction site (or, just as tragically, for the people who eventually move into buildings which have been badly built). This dearth of workers in this sector who know what they are doing was inevitable – for surely we knew that Malta was not producing enough people versed in construction to cope with all this over-development, and simply making do with untrained immigrants was not the solution.

Still, all this does not answer the question of why, in a country crying out for workers, the process is being made so difficult. One possible reason was probably revealed last year by none other than Clyde Caruana himself, now wearing his new hat as Finance minister who seems to have belatedly realised that the importation of foreign workers has created a new host of problems. Speaking at a business breakfast, he asked, “Is it time to introduce quotas for third-country nationals?  Is it time, work permits are only issued for certain economic sectors or only within certain wage brackets? Is it time to issue work permits only if the employer has a minimum threshold of Maltese employees?”

So which is it going to be? The free for all we had pre-2020 or the current predicament where the employment screws for non-EU foreign nationals are seemingly already being tightened? It is clear that if employment of TCNs is going to remain this difficult, some places will inevitably have to close down, which seems to be the opposite of the return to the booming economy the Labour Government keeps promising. This is the dichotomy of the labour market we find ourselves in, where the authorities themselves cannot seem to decide what to do with this ‘monster’ they have created.

And while we are looking forward to the first ‘normal’ summer in two years, I really cannot see how the tourism sector will cope when so many places are already understaffed.

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