We may be fighting it, but inequality is still tipping the balance in Malta and the EU. Through the European Pillar of Social Rights, the EU is working to deliver more effective rights for citizens. Jo Caruana explores the challenges and assesses how they are being addressed.
While some aspects of modern living remind us that we have never had it so good, examples of inequality still persist.
One of these inequalities is the gender pay gap. Statistics issued last November – during which month, Malta celebrated Equal Pay Day – showed that on average, women still earn 12.2 per cent less than men. This is up from 11 per cent in 2016 – a rise which is the highest in the EU. The gender pay gap in other EU member states ranges from less than eight per cent in Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania and Slovenia, to more than 20 per cent in the Czech Republic, Germany, Estonia and United Kingdom.
Locally, this gap widens to 18.7 per cent in the case of women with a tertiary level education, as National Statistics Office data shows.
Within the employment context, Malta also continues to have the largest gender employment gap across EU member states – despite progress in encouraging more women to enter the workforce.
Poverty is a growing issue too. In 2017, there were 83,000 people in Malta at risk of poverty or social exclusion, according to Eurostat, up from 81,000 in 2008. This increase goes against the general EU trend, where 112.9 million people fall into this category, down from 116 million in 2008.
On top of that, housing worries have shot up. On February 22, the Times of Malta reported how, according to 2018 Eurobarometer data, in Malta, 29 per cent of survey respondents said they were concerned about housing, especially rising rent prices. The EU Commission’s 2019 country report on Malta shows that the risk of poverty among tenants increased from 23.4 per cent in 2013 to 35.9 per cent in 2017.
The National Commission for the Promotion of Equality commissioner Renee Laiviera highlighted some pressing concerns.
“To begin with there’s the gender pay gap (in Malta, 12.2 per cent) and the unequal sharing of caring responsibilities,” she said. “This has working women in Malta doing 29 hours of unpaid work on a weekly basis, compared to men who do 11 hours.”
Regarding the unequal sharing of caring responsibilities, this year’s Regional Gen-der Equality Monitor JRC technical rep-ort shows how Malta has the highest difference in caring responsibilities (2013-2015).
“Beyond that, there is also the issue of the underreporting of cases of alleged discrimination, which Malta faces alongside most other countries. Due to underreporting, most cases of discrimination remain unidentified and, ultimately, no action can be taken. In light of this, the NCPE continuously raises awareness to empower victims to come forward with their cases in order to seek redress,” Ms Laiviera added.
Making the European Pillar of Social Rights a reality for citizens is a joint responsibility
Andre Bonello, secretary of the Anti-Poverty Forum and manager of Caritas’ community outreach programme, explained that, locally, drugs are a huge challenge and that sufferers face immense inequality when it comes to their rehabilitation into society.
“That is often made worse by the sharp rise in the cost of living and the difficult housing situation,” he said.
“Across Malta, people are being left with next to nothing after paying their rent, even when they are earning above minimum wage. They are not managing to buy food, pay their water and electricity bills, or even buy medicine for their children.
“As a result, a living wage is very important, so that people can live a better life,” he added.
The General Workers Union is also increasingly aware of how inequality is affecting life in Malta. Speaking about the current situation, GWU secretary general Josef Bugeja said: “We are living in an increasingly globalised and digitalised world. While, on one hand, this provides us with vast opportunities to improve our quality of life, on the other it also creates new and atypical forms of employment, where social rights and employment conditions are at stake. Left unchecked, it could result in workers’ exploitation – like precarious employment, social dumping, and poverty.”
The European Pillar of Social Rights – which was first outlined by EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in his first State of the European Union speech in September 2015 – is an effort towards building a more inclusive and fairer European Union.
The Pillar has been developed through consultation to work towards delivering new and effective rights for EU citizens across the categories of equal opportunities and access to the labour market, fair working conditions, and social protection and inclusion. It was jointly signed by the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission on November 17, 2017, at the Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Since then, 20 key principles have been outlined for the implementation of the Pillar, across three categories. When it comes to equal opportunities and access to the labour market, they cover: education, training and life-long learning; gender equality; equal opportunities; and active support to employment.
In the category for fair working conditions, the principles strive for: secure and adaptable employment; wages; information about employment conditions and protection in case of dismissals; social dialogue and the involvement of workers; work-life balance; and healthy, safe and well-adapted work environments and data protection.
Finally, the third category on social protection and inclusion covers: childcare and support to children; social protection; unemployment benefits; minimum income; old age income and pensions; health care; the inclusion of people with disabilities; long-term care; housing and assistance for the homeless; and access to essential services.
Through the European Pillar of Social Rights, various gains have been made. The new directive on transparent and predictable working conditions will give employees starting a new job the right to be notified in writing of the essential aspects of their employment relationship, while the Working Time Directive gives employees the right to health and safety protection and working conditions that respect their health, safety and dignity. Last January, the European Parliament and Council of Ministers reached an agreement on the proposed Work-Life Balance Directive, addressing the challenges faced by working parents and carers. Parliament and Council, as the co-legislators, agreed on 10 working days paternity leave paid at not less than the level of sick pay, on two months of non-transferable paid parental leave, on five days of annual carers’ leave and on flexible working patterns, including remote working, for parents and carers.
This was a good step forward in this legislature. The European Pillar of Social Rights, however, is not a static commitment with a start and end date – it is a living commitment, a constant investment that reflects the changing realities of life in the EU. Endorsement and implementation would enable Malta to continue developing its social policies.
Rights and responsibilities
Making the European Pillar of Social Rights a reality for citizens is a joint responsibility. While most of the tools to deliver on the Pillar are in the hands of member states, as well as social partners and civil society, EU institutions can help by setting the framework and giving the direction.
In addition to proposing the European Pillar of Social Rights, the Commission has put forward a number of legislative and non-legislative initiatives related to work-life balance, the information of workers, access to social protection and working time.
Assessing Malta’s progress on economic and social priorities
In its annual assessment of the economic and social situation in the member states, the European Commission stresses the need to promote investment, pursue responsible fiscal policies and implement well-designed reforms.
In the 2019 assessment of Malta, the Commission reported that Malta performs relatively well on the indicators of the Social Scoreboard supporting the European Pillar of Social Rights – although certain challenges remain.
The assessment highlights:
▪ The employment rate is above both the national target and the EU average and unemployment is very low
▪ The free childcare scheme has substantially increased formal childcare participation, increasing female employment. However, the employment rate for older women remains low, reflecting limited support for informal carers
▪ Unequal access to quality education is fuelling the high share of early school leavers and low overall skills attainment
▪ While increasing, the employment rate for people with disabilities (29 per cent) remains one of the lowest in the EU
The European Pillar of Social Rights booklet is available for download in 22 languages from the following website: https://ec.europa.eu/ commission/ publications/european-pillar-social-rights-booklet_en
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