Work-life balance considerations afford little in assessing balance but address the imbalance created by fulfilling one personal priority over another.

The drivers for such change usually occur after labour markets respond to customer service demands. The argument for work-life balance is that employees will take less time off from illness, increase their resilience and commitment, and open the business pool for other talents and working hours.

The transposition of the 2019/1158 EU Directive via subsidiary legislation 452.125 of the Laws of Malta, reflects the joint EU Parliament and Council decision to instate a framework with more flexibility for parents and carers in an employment relationship or contract.

This strategy demonstrates an attempt to reconcile employees’ domestic and occupational demands and provide equal opportunity to the labour market for both sexes. Ubi societas, ibi ius: laws are enacted to regulate the needs of a functional modern democratic society. It remains to be seen how legislation translates into policy and, more importantly, persons’ ability to lead a more fulfilled life, not just as part of a family, but as individuals in society.

One aims at developing oneself to be free from restrictions and offences on one’s dignity. Nations in turn attempt to foster this independence by setting up structures in line with human nature and lifestyle.

What stakeholders must consider is whether authentic humane development is taking place. Work ought to unite persons in joint responsibility, suffering, hope, attainment and spirituality. Abuse of work conditions and the opportunity to provide it by denying human dignity and intelligence results in one’s instrumentalisation.

Apart from improving working conditions at a national level, such policies will affect the intracontinental movement of professionals. Countries that provide the most beneficial lifestyles attract and retain professionals. This is a challenge for employers that invest in migrant workers.

The European framework allows the free movement of workers benefitting from the 2005/36 EU directive, which was later modified by EU directive 2013/55.

It is unlikely that requests by countries to limit such flexibility will occur since European courts of justice have decided mostly in favour of professional mobility and Europe is embarking on an era of professional scarcity. This was evidenced during the recent COVID-19 pandemic and will be tested again as old age dependency ratios in Malta are forecasted to increase considerably by the next decade, stretching health and social care further.

A right to work

Malta has seen its decline in fertility rates in recent decades and now has Europe’s lowest fertility rate at 1.13. Live births have fallen from 10,300 to 5,300 over two decades since the 1950s, and then some more to 2,200 live births per year in the 2000s. These trends started occurring around the 1990s when several European states had their economies influenced by changes happening in Eastern Europe.

The reasons vary but are mostly due to the advancing age of motherhood. Maltese mothers have delayed their maternity by an average of three years to 29 years of age. Non-Maltese mothers are catching up and make up a quarter of new live births when before they used to be around five per cent.

Other southern EU countries such as Spain and Italy have similar trends. Nordic countries have the lowest average age of first maternity at 26 years of age, and higher fertility rates. Migrant workers have a higher fertility rate but subsequent generations take on that of the host state.

Women are entering the public service workforce in Malta more than ever before (48%) compared to 15 years ago (35%), surpassing the percentage of women employed in the private sector (36%) last year.

The rising feminisation reflects the spectrum of job opportunities and working conditions women are prepared to accept. Challenges remain on resources that compete with a professional’s personal needs, communication barriers and a manager’s pursuit to maintain service delivery.

Women are observably more comfortable having children when their partner is actively engaged in childcare. This unsurprisingly indicates that having children depends on the availability of burden-sharing among carers.

In a study by Fiori and Di Gessa (2022) assessing the employment trends of Italian women before and after attaining motherhood, it was noted that women might put off childbearing given other priorities. Societal roles and personal preferences lose their significance after motherhood. Returning to the workforce depends on external factors and work-life balance measures.

Self-employed women in the private sector left work more easily, whereas women in contractual agreements and more flexible work commitments would re-enter the workforce earlier.

Even by reducing the number of hours to allow for more time with the family, the market compensates. The reduction to a 35-hour working week in France, despite a background unemployment rate of 10 per cent in the early 2000s, led to an increase in overtime working hours, showing that employers preferred to retain the same workers than employ new ones.

Fagnani and Letablier (2004) did not discuss whether this was because of the lack of human resources or harder management with more personnel. On the other hand, a one-size-fits-all regulation may have detrimental effects on parents who work different hours, which may be a problem if employment conditions are not accommodated.

A right to family

The ease of mobility between European states and the globalisation of the professional market is a phenomenon that favours economic growth and increased opportunities for European citizens in line with Article 15 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Human Rights. In advanced countries and sectors, it leads to a paradoxical loss of fraternity while less equipped neighbours that strive to educate and train professionals see them move on to more prosperous grounds.

This is not new news. Back in 2004, the EU Commission had already expressed its concern and warned authorities to mitigate demands in consideration of less advantaged member states. How does the European spirit value the right to free movement in relation to the following articles of the European Convention of Human Rights and whether they are applied in a worker’s home state?

Article 9: The right to marry and found a family;

Article 31: Fair and just working conditions;

Article 33: The right to family and professional life;

Article 35: The right to healthcare.

The number of professionals mobilising from small countries such as Malta has little impact on larger countries. The same cannot be said for the micro-home state of the Maltese professional which receives an influx of mobile workers.

This trend lacks the principle of solidarity among countries and biases individuals into sacrificing familial, cultural and societal ties in pursuit of fulfilment of other basic needs. Is it just to ignore previous generations who strived to create the frameworks that moulded youths into professionals? What is the cost-benefit-ratio for the generations that are investing in teaching, upbringing, time, money, spaces, and hope?

Is the freedom of movement of workers intended to offer better employment opportunities on an equal level among countries or a sign of disappointment in domestic infrastructure and opportunity?

Are migrant Maltese workers returning to participate in improving the social fabric after being given to opportunity to improve their lifestyles?

This set-up is an inherent contradiction that makes European member states equal only when conducting a general system evaluation of third-country professionals who wish to live and work in a member state.

A humanistic argument on how to address low fertility, an ageing population and the looming scarcity of professionals in Malta needs to be discussed. In the short term, subsidiarity will depend on how the community will avail itself of retaining migrant workers.

Ian Baldacchino is a family doctor and second-year candidate for a master’s in bioethics.

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