In the latter part of the last century, political parties and trade unions worked to improve the plight of workers who often lacked the clout to negotiate decent working conditions with their employers. Industrial relations legislation became the bedrock of workers’ rights. The exploitation that prevailed in the early half of the 20th century was curbed and a fairer society emerged.

The search for economic growth at all costs by many Western countries is once again enabling the exploitation of workers. This time it is third-country, or non-EU, nationals who are mainly the victims.

Labour market policies have become more liberal in an effort to fill the employment gaps that many European countries are experiencing because of worsening demographics and the reluctance of many native Europeans to take up certain manual jobs that attract low wages. The resulting modern-day worker exploitation is a reality that must be addressed with urgency.

Over the weekend, the Church’s Justice and Peace Commission called for a reform of the social contract by which workers are guaranteed certain social benefits in return for paying a regular premium out of their wages. The commission believes it is “socially unjust and morally unacceptable” that many non-EU workers are not eligible to a Maltese pension once they retire, even if they have paid taxes and national insurance for years.

Malta’s national insurance is a non-funded, pay-as-you-go scheme. It provides free healthcare and other social benefits for all. The NI scheme also guarantees a capped state pension for those who pay national insurance for a prescribed number of years.

The surge of low-paid, third-country workers in the last decade has seen national insurance contributions surge, to the benefit of the government’s coffers. NI not only covers free health costs for all workers but also helps partly finance the state pension for locals.

More than 40,000 third-country nationals work in the local labour market, with about 77 per cent earning less than €21,000 annually.  Many struggle to find decent accommodation as rent costs have been increasing exponentially over the last several years. Most migrant workers send a part of their income to their families, who often live in even more stressed conditions in developing countries. Few migrant workers will eventually settle in Malta, moving instead to other countries or their homeland after a few years.

Under these circumstances, they’re easy prey for predator employers, who hardly have anything to lose by exploiting workers who have everything to lose. The exploitation of workers of any nationality is a disgrace to our country. Working conditions that violate labour standards and compromise (especially irregular) migrant workers’ health and safety must no longer be tolerated.

Just as importantly, national insurance contributions made by third-country workers must qualify them for rights equal to those enjoyed by local workers. If migrant workers leave the country without having paid the minimum prescribed contributions to be eligible for a local state pension, they ought to get a refund for the part of their contributions that would typically go to fund their pension on retirement.

The Church commission correctly argues: “There can be no social justice without tax justice and no social cohesion if the rights and dignity of some are blatantly ignored.” The commission must be complimented for standing up for the right of all workers to be treated fairly.

The reform of the NI system is long overdue. The capping of pensions and contributions causes many workers to struggle financially in retirement. The system needs to be re-engineered to make it fairer to all local and foreign workers who pay their contributions from hard-earned wages.

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