The entire private sector is struggling to engage employees because of the exodus of foreign workers driven by the pandemic, Malta Employers’ Association head, Joe Farrugia said Friday.

Times of Malta has reported that restaurants and cafes are understaffed and exposed to poaching of workers on the eve of what is hoped will be a busier summer season.

Restaurant owners have said they are finding it difficult to recruit employees, with some forced to delay reopening their outlets as a result.

But, according to Farrugia, the problem goes beyond the catering industry, with the shortage of workers also hitting the entire private sector.

Though acknowledging that some industries are worse hit than others – namely catering and hospitality – Farrugia pointed out that all employers in the private sector were finding it increasingly difficult to engage new staff.

Finding workers for semi-skilled labour, for instance, was especially difficult as the Maltese continued to refuse to do such work, he said.

Along with the catering industry, Farrugia pointed to the construction and care industries as facing the biggest problems. Both had in recent years relied heavily on the influx of foreign workers, he noted.

Also, Maltese workers were more inclined to want to work in the public sector, with many of those going into the private sector often returning to government jobs after a few years.

While he believes the economic recovery forecast for the coming months, as the country moves on from the pandemic, will see some foreigners returning to the island, he said this should not be the only way forward.

According to Farrugia, the country needs to focus on “rationalising the domestic workforce” to better understand why some jobs are no longer attractive to the Maltese.

In February, Times of Malta had revealed that the number of foreign workers had stalled for the first time in over a decade although it remained unclear how many workers had left the island during the pandemic.

Finance Minister Clyde Caruana had said at the time that the workers who left the country last year, driven mainly by the COVID-induced disruption, were mostly unregulated so they would not have featured in the statistics.

As the former head of employment agency Jobsplus, Caruana had been behind the Labour administration’s policy of bringing in thousands of foreign workers.

The number of foreign workers on the island shot up from below 20,000 in 2013 to nearly 70,000 at the end of last year.

Times of Malta has reached out to both the minister and Jobsplus for comment.

Malta is not unique

Also reacting on Friday was the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association, which said the worker crisis in the catering industry was being experienced in other countries too.

MHRA chief Tony Zahra said the issue was “not particular to Malta” as this was a direct after-effect of the closures brought about by the pandemic.

While he understood restaurateurs’ concerns, Zahra urged them to operate in “better and more efficient” ways, saying the numbers this summer would surely not match those from before the pandemic.

“They need to ask themselves: do I actually need all this staff? Can I be more efficient?

“I also urge them to give it some time because I am sure that, in three to four weeks, more foreign workers will be coming over to the island,” he said.

However, Zahra also warned that Malta should not be urging workers from countries still struggling with high infection rates to come over. Malta, he said, could not afford to close up again because of a new spike in COVID-19 cases.

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