“For the first time in history, the unemployment rate in Malta dropped to under four per cent”. This triumphant statement was made by the Department of Information last month. Technically speaking, the statement is correct. At 3.9 per cent, Malta’s unemployment rate also happens to be the lowest in the European Union.

Just as the government was busy promoting this achievement, the Times of Malta published some facts that shed further light on the matter.

Basically, it transpired that the newly-launched Community Work Scheme Enterprise Foundation absorbed 567 long-term unemployed individuals from the 4,033 registered unemployed, thus resulting in a downward revision of Malta’s official unemployment rate.

This move was carried out by the Jobs Plus agency (the former Employment and Training Corporation) and these people are now being paid the minimum wage, courtesy of the taxpayer.

They are full-time employees - “so far, for five years” - with the public service in a scheme run by the General Workers’ Union. They are said to perform tasks with local councils, carry out maintenance work at schools and other public entities and assist NGOs.

The Ministry for Education and Employment has hailed this initiative as one which provides “experience and skill-building rather than fixed employment, while individuals are helped in the process of finding work in the private sector”.

Is this initiative justified or not?

The Community Work Scheme requires visibility, transparency, accountability and auditing

I think there are different ways at looking at this issue and these are not necessarily exclusive of each other.

One interpretation would welcome this initiative as one that gives dignity to people who were otherwise unemployable and who are now being productive instead of welfare dependent.

This would be in synch with the social policy perspective known as welfare-to-work. Here, people are incentivised towards employment. Other schemes along these lines include the tapering of benefits for persons who enter employment, the provision of universal childcare facilities for working parents and investment in training for unemployed workers.

This interpretation is being put forward by the government but can easily be supported by those – myself included - who believe in a progressive social policy that aims to empower people.

Yet, another interpretation would suggest investigating what is actually being carried out by these workers. Are they really being productive and is their work being audited?

In this regard, some local councils have complained that workers are giving less output than what is expected from full-timers. This is quite common in similar schemes, which have been in place under different administrations.

Whether such workers are productive or not depends on various factors, ranging from their attitude to the type of jobs they are being assigned.

Local councils rely on goodwill and the power of persuasion because ultimate authority over such workers lies elsewhere.

A more cynical interpretation of such schemes would enquire whether the jobs and conditions given to the workers are in any way related to constituency requirements of respective ministers and other politicians in government.

And, sometimes, ministers might feel jealous when rising star candidates from local councils are performing well, especially if they are deemed to be competitors in general elections.

Finally, another interpretation of this initiative would be that the government is carrying out an exercise of creative accounting, which conveniently lowers the official unemployment rate.

This interpretation has its strengths but one should also keep in mind that Malta’s private sector keeps creating thousands of new jobs, to the benefit of Malta’s economy. Yet, paradoxically, there are also many workers who are experiencing increased hardships due to low wages.

In my view, the Community Work Scheme is in itself a good idea. But it requires visibility, transparency, accountability and auditing, especially since it is financed through public expenditure. Entities using the service of its workers should also have a greater say in its operations and implementation.

Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.

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