Before reducing the number of foreign workers in Malta, the authorities need to come up with a strategy that addresses a shortage of prospective employees, the government is being warned.

On Wednesday, Robert Abela said the government will not support operators whose business model is solely focused on the importation of foreign workers.

The prime minister’s comments come days after Times of Malta reported that the government has embarked on a series of measures to try to limit the number of non-EU nationals living in Malta.

According to national data, just over 22 per cent of the total population are non-Maltese nationals, several of whom work in the tourism and delivery sectors.

When it comes to the catering industry, dependency on foreign workers has grown so much in recent years that any draconian decision will have a considerable impact on the sector which is already struggling with the supply of employees, Association of Catering Establishments Secretary Omar Vella told Times of Malta.

“While ACE acknowledges that there are some who are abusing the situation, and we agree that something needs to be done about it, draconian or hasty decisions could break the sector.

“The catering industry has grown exponentially while the local supply of skilled employees remains minimal, so the problem needs to be addressed from the root – from the moment prospective employees decide to take up – or not – tourism studies.”

ACE’s president Michelle Muscat added that the writing has been on the wall for quite a few years.

“The 2021 JobsPlus annual report, which flagged the catering industry’s dependency on non-EU nationals, as well as concerns shared by the sector’s key operators for some years were a clear indication of where we were heading.”

A decision to reduce the number of foreign workers in Malta should therefore be supported by a clear strategy that outlines a way forward to solve the current impasse.

“This is something ACE and other representative bodies in the industry have insisted on time and time again. It is time that the industry and the government sit down around a table and come up with solutions. It is only then, that such a decision [to reduce the number of foreign workers] could be considered realistic and tangible.”

'No knee-jerk reactions'

Malta Employers’ Association director general Joseph Farrugia similarly called for a strategy, saying it was not a simple matter of cutting down the number of third-country nationals (TCNs) residing in Malta.

MEA, he told Times of Malta, has been warning about the sudden increase in population for years, and in 2017 issued a position paper urging the government to study the situation carefully to avoid various negative effects, many of which we are experiencing today, including infrastructure bottlenecks, traffic and ghettoisation.

Farrugia warned against “knee-jerk reactions”, urging an “honest examination of where we are and how we want to shape our economy and society”.

“There has to be a detailed analysis of what is leading so many companies to resort to employing foreign employees before stating outright that we need to limit TCNs in Malta, he said.

These are some contributing factors according to MEA:

  • Thousands of workers poached from the private sector into non-productive employment in the public sector.
  • Mismatch of skills creating shortages of skilled labour such as technicians: because the education system is not generating enough people qualified in STEM subjects.
  • Many young people seeking a better quality of life abroad, mostly due to high property prices and a congested environment.
  • Exploitation in the black-market economy.
  • Increase in demand for low- skilled, labour-intensive services which Maltese people do not want to do, such as food delivery and domestic cleaning services.
  • Early exit from the labour force by Maltese people.
  • The addition of public holidays falling on weekends to vacation leave resulting in a reduction in man hours equivalent to at least 3,500 full-timers.
  • The expansion in certain sectors of labour-intensive economic activity such as construction.
  • Veering towards mass tourism resulting in a higher demand for less qualified, lower paid employees.
  • Insufficient emphasis on the need for automation and labour-saving work organisation such as employing meter readers despite having smart meters. 

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