Updated Tuesday 10pm with Maltese Italian Chamber of Commerce statement
The Economy Minister’s controversial comments that foreigners laid off in Malta because of the coronavirus crisis would have to be deported sparked a tsunami of criticism among expats on the island.
Thousands of foreign workers in Malta resorted to social media on Tuesday night to express their disgust after Silvio Schembri told parliament: “Charity begins at home. Our primary focus are Maltese and Gozitan workers. The moment foreign workers lose their job they will have to go back to their country.”
He went on to refer specifically to third country nationals, especially security officers and cleaners who work in the tourism industry.
His comments in the wake of drastic measures to protect the economy, did not go unnoticed.
It gives the impression that the Maltese treat us like Kleenex
An Italian worker told Times of Malta: “I understand many politicians turn populist in times of crisis, but do the minister’s comments reflect the community feeling that Malta brags about? It gives the impression that the Maltese treat us like Kleenex.”
Many of those responding expressed surprise how a minister would utter such words when it was a known fact that the Maltese economy had been thriving especially because of the foreigners contributing to it and paying their taxes.
One wrote on a Facebook expats’ group: “I know that times of crisis brings the worst out in the ppl but for a goverment official to say something like this...”
Another went one step further “Am I in Germany 1937?”
Others called his comments “racist,” "illegal" and "bigoted" while some said Malta’s sterling work in managing the health crisis was being offset by short-sightedness in the economic recovery plan.
Many called for solidarity with those losing their jobs as coronavirus wreaks havoc in the economy.
“I feel so sorry for you guys. But please remember this, remember this and spread the word how this country’s representatives treated you.”
Chamber says it is 'shocked'
In a statement, the Maltese Italian Chamber of Commerce said it was shocked and completely dissociated itself from comments attributed to the minister.
It said several companies owned by expats and Italians have made huge investments in Malta and employ thousands of people. As taxpayers, foreigners have the same rights as Maltese citizens.
"At this moment we should be thinking about protecting everyone's health, rather than finding means to divide us. Coronavirus does not distinguish between nationalities. We are sure that the minister's words are the result of a misunderstanding," the chamber said.
MEP Roberta Metsola said Schembri's comments were an attempt to create straw-men enemies in an effort to shore up domestic, district level, electoral concerns.
"It is that cynical at a time when we need everyone to push back against COVID-19. The 'liberal' facade has well and truly crumbled," she said.
It is the second time in a few hours that Schembri was in the line of fire after he said on Monday night that the passport scheme fund cannot be used to cushion the impact of the first sign of trouble.
In 2017, Clyde Caruana, then heading the state employment agency JobsPlus, and now the Prime Minister’s chief of staff had told Times of Malta that more than 20,000 foreign workers had come to the island over the past few years but even more were needed to “build the railroad” and keep the economy running.