The international media has regularly highlighted the treatment of migrant workers in preparation for the World Cup in Qatar, where many temporary foreign workers reportedly died while building the event’s infrastructure. Less visible, but equally real, is the abuse of vulnerable workers toiling at the margins of our own society here in Malta.
The NGO YMCA has lifted the lid on the exploitation that some migrants and foreign workers face when they try to earn an honest living in this country.
A YMCA white paper linked to the HomeInclusRation project, which aims to address the problem of homelessness, lists some of the typical forms of abominable treatment that these workers are sometimes subjected to.
In one example, it was revealed that some migrant workers are made to sleep on construction sites and that the “rent” is then deducted from their already meagre wages.
Others are trapped in abusive jobs because the law gives them an unrealistic 10 days to find a new one or lose their status if they decide to leave because of their terrible working conditions.
In a particularly shocking example, a young construction worker lost a limb after a bad accident at his place of work and was kicked out onto the streets when he could not pay the rent due to lack of income.
One would like to think these are all exceptions. But Christian Inkum, YMCA Malta’s head of home, described some policies as being “weaponised and used by business owners to silence migrants”.
The exploitation of vulnerable workers by unscrupulous business owners is hardly a new phenomenon. In the past, trade unions, the Church and charities dedicated resources to supplement the social aid given by the state.
Today, some trade unions prefer to perpetuate the status quo by defending only the rights of local workers, especially those in the public sector.
NGOs like YMCA and the Jesuit Refugee Service Malta do their bit and try to sensitise public opinion to how unfairly these victims of modern society are being treated.
But NGOs cannot solve the problem on their own. The government must start addressing this shameful reality that too many disapprove of but often tolerate.
One factor that creates vulnerability is residence status. The whole visa and working permit process must be revised to ensure that employers do not exploit loopholes in the system that put foreign workers at a gross disadvantage when seeking to change jobs.
Insufficient and ineffective inspections by law enforcement officers is another factor behind the abuse of migrants.
The lack of political will to enforce sensible laws and regulations is a perennial problem that allows cowboy employers to take advantage of foreign workers.
Poor migrants and their families also need more social intervention to help them integrate into society. This must include full medical support beyond the services offered by our public health system in order to ensure the supply of essential medicine in case of illness.
Teaching migrants English, especially children, would be critical to integration efforts and would probably need a rethinking of how language lessons are delivered to disadvantaged minorities.
We have a choice: we continue to ignore the problem – which has been highlighted many times in the past – hoping it will eventually vanish or we properly protect migrant workers and their families.
Equal treatment of all workers is not optional. Dignity and fairness cannot be applied selectively. They are obligations within the laws, mores and values that supposedly govern our society.
It is time politicians and other leaders stop pretending this ugly reality does not exist.