In 2018 alone, over 12,000 workers from outside the European Union received a permit to work in Malta. The number is set to rise sharply in the coming two years. This is not in itself a problem. What is worrying is that the government is absent in handling the effects of this phenomenon on the employment conditions of our workers, on our public services and on our labour market in general. 

To start with, cheap foreign labour axes the bargaining power of local blue-collar workers. This was made clear in one of my meetings with Union Ħaddiema Magħqudin on the situation of the labour market in Malta. 

All of a sudden, collective agreements as well as promotions, bonuses and salary increases become harder to negotiate as local workers realise they have become easily replaceable by cheap immigrant labour working as hard for less. To some employers needing to compete with companies paying less for their workforce, the decent salaries they give to the Maltese workers could start to appear problematic.

This is not a new phenomenon and the EU has sought ways to regulate it. 

The European Posting of Workers Directive aims at ensuring a level playing field in the labour market across the EU. This directive is one of a few signs of a social Europe, in so far as it provides for a contracted foreign worker to be employed in at least as favourable conditions to the ones existing under national law in the host country. 

The problem with this directive is that it does not apply to non-EU nationals. 

Given that our foreign workers are increasingly coming from third-countries, our local workers find themselves without the protection of this EU directive, which may be easily bypassed by the government in the case of workers imported from non-EU countries. 

The current situation with third-country nationals being recruited by their thousands gives legitimate cause for concern. 

Our workers are asking, are these being paid the Maltese minimum wage? Are their seemingly sub-standard accommodation provisions considered as part of their salary? Will these workers remain here to be deployed on other projects?

All these questions require answers by government authorities. More than that, all these issues require closer handling within a larger long-term plan to foster our labour market.

Whether these visitors are Turkish, Chinese or Serbian, Malta should treat its foreign workers with respect and dignity. What’s at stake is not only their livelihoods but the reputation of our country and its industries. 

Workers employed in the construction industry where the minimum basic rate for a Maltese worker is €10 cannot be paid €4.50 an hour without consequences for the Maltese worker and Maltese companies. 

As a first suggestion, we should consider applying the minimum safeguards applicable to EU nationals in the Posting of Workers Directive to third country nationals. Nothing inhibits our government from doing this as labour rules for third country nationals remain a national competence. 

Malta should treat its foreign workers with respect and dignity. What’s at stake is not only their livelihoods but the reputation of our country and its industries

The above would also be welcome to en-sure the competitiveness of the Maltese companies. In my visits to factories and offices, businesses invariably discuss the employment of foreign workers. All would tell you that for them it is imperative to have a supply of labour to allow them to deploy their business plans, but most would also raise concerns if their competitors can employ labour at cheaper prices or without the safeguards applicable to their own operations. 

Ensuring a level playing field in the labour market is hence also a guarantee for our ethical businesses who care to invest in their personnel in a long-term relationship.

Secondly, we should also consider anticipating the COLA mechanism to peg basic salaries and working conditions per sector according to standards in collective agreements. This is foreseen to enter into effect in 2023, but at the current rate, 2023 will be too late for a number of sectors to recover from rampant social dumping. 

Thirdly, we should be more vigilant on precarious work finding its way into public tendering. This labour government led battle cries against precarious work but seems to have forgotten all about it once in government. We are yet to be convinced of the government’s vigilance on public tenders in this regard.

Malta has always welcomed foreign input with open arms. We will not stop that now. 

We joined the EU in that spirit, because we are confident we can compete through our creativity. The current situation cannot however be read in that context, as the market is creating two parallel worlds with different criteria and conditions. Such parallel worlds were exemplified recently with local contractors complaining about shoddy equipment used by a Turkish company when they themselves are expected to invest in the latest machinery with European standards.

It is high time for the government to step in, secure a clear level playing field for everyone and show some latent long-term vision to secure a healthy jobs market now and for the next decade. 

Failure to do so now risks kick-starting a chain reaction with dire consequences for everyone: from the foreign workers to their Maltese colleagues, to their employers, and – ultimately – to our youths who are pondering what to do when they grow up. 

Let’s make sure their aspirations remain possible five or 10 years from now.

Peter Agius is a Nationalist Party candidate for the European elections, former head of the European Parliament Office and cabinet member of the President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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