The head of the Malta Employers’ Association has sounded an alarm. The entire private sector is “struggling to engage employees because of the exodus of foreign workers”. Meanwhile, hundreds of young people are warehoused in Ħal Far, struggling to survive and desperate to work. 

Ironically, the Ministry for Home Affairs has recently introduced a new policy denying certain categories of asylum seekers the right to work for a period of nine months after arrival in Malta.

These policy changes come on the back of amendments to the Special Residence Authorisation Policy, which was initially introduced as a pragmatic and (I believed at the time) honest and decent response to support failed asylum seekers who have been living in Malta for many years, in acknowledgement of the economic, cultural and social contributions they make to their new home.

The Special Residence Authorisation provided much-needed stability to these people, including the right to work for the duration of the permit.

So this is the situation – employers crying out for workers. Workers, crying out for work.  And the government removing the right for a certain category of asylum seekers and failed asylum seekers to work. 

Prior to the pandemic, the government embraced globalisation, choosing to prioritise economic growth and investment from around the world. And the ‘world’ came in to accommodate this.

Certainly, the economy boomed, and many people benefitted. But many did not. Even when the economy was thriving, the strategy was always to capitalise and exploit migrant labour.

There is a certain irony in employers complaining about a lack of staff and poaching (‘Restaurants face staffing crisis after worker exodus, May 28’) within a context grounded in (and fuelled) by a dog-eat-dog mentality that views migrants simply as a means to an end.

When profit and competition are valued over fairness, respect and dignity, one can hardly blame migrants for upping and leaving, especially when they are denied basic protections and told, in no uncertain words to “go back home”.  Indeed, as COVID-19 reached the shores of Malta, many migrants (or at least those who could), went back home, as instructed by Economy Minister Silvio Schembri in March of last year. 

Because here’s the thing. Malta’s economic boom, the source of ġid (prosperity) so to speak, depended on cheap, exploitable, flexible labour – including that of asylum seekers. 

And now, it would seem, we find ourselves in a pickle.

The racialised bodies of asylum seekers, refugees and migrant workers continue to be a convenient distraction when things are going belly up, and an expedient target when there’s an election in the offing.

There are hundreds of young asylum seekers eager to learn, work and contribute

Thinly veiled (?) racism has nurtured a culture of fear and anger that is manipulated to blame the migrant for… well everything really… including their own exploitation, a drop in working conditions for Maltese workers, and even labour market shortages.

And so, in an effort to keep its electoral promises, the government has introduced a number of new policies that essentially deny access to legal employment.

In the absence of deportation (though not for want of trying) the onus is on implementing policies intended to extend the hostile environment beyond the walls of the detention centre, and to make life in Malta as difficult as possible for asylum seekers and those denied protection, so that they might return ‘voluntarily’.

Such policy developments represent a morally depraved course of action that is doomed to fail, not least because it fails to consider the very real threats that propelled these young people to flee their homes in the first place.

Make no mistake though, these policies will have a devastating effect on the lives of hundreds of asylum seekers.

Those working in the field of refugees will tell you that the conditions for asylum seekers in Malta have never been so bad, marked by a determined erosion in rights and protections.

The present administration is denying access to healthcare (contrary to WHO advice – and basic public health good practice – we now learn that asylum seekers will not be given the vaccine), basic shelter (we’re talking far more basic than affordable housing here), legal employment, and at times even liberty, illegally.

But now COVID-19 introduces a new dilemma. How will the economy recover without shipping in more human cargo? Unsurprisingly, business owners and the Malta Employers Association are now pressing the panic buttons because they don’t have enough workers… and also because apparently the Maltese don’t want to do the kind of work that is needed.

Malta needs workers, and there are hundreds of young asylum seekers who are eager to learn, and importantly, eager to work and contribute. We know this because we have watched them sweat and labour. They have built our hospitals and our roads, they have cleaned our streets, care homes and hospitals, washed our dishes, stacked our shelves, picked our vegetables and delivered our pizzas.

They form part of the frontline work force, on whom ‘our’ very survival has depended. They also want to enjoy the rights too many of us take for granted, rights they are being denied.

The employers’ association and others may call for a pragmatic response, calling for policies that facilitate asylum seekers’ access to the labour market. And this makes sense, because let’s face it, this is ridiculous. But it must be a strategy that respects basic human rights and breaks the cycle of abuse.

It would not take much for the relevant stakeholders to put their heads together and come up with a strategy and supporting framework that prepares these young people to access the labour market, to provide the training that they need and want, and to support their inclusion into Maltese society in a dignified way.

Recognising the just and fair course of action is not rocket science. It should not be difficult to take moral responsibility and to do the right thing.

Maria Pisani, Department of Youth & Community Studies, Faculty for Social Well-being

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