The Planning Authority was never renowned for the speed with which it enforces regulations on those who breach the rules. If anything, it has a reputation for making controversial compromises that often let abusers get away with a fine while continuing to benefit from the breach of planning regulations.

Shanty towns, for instance, have, over the past decades, mushroomed in various public areas close to popular beaches with the government and the planning regulator closing both eyes to this abuse and even providing water and electricity facilities to abusers.

Its decision, presumably with the political blessing of the government, to take enforcement action with regard to a cattle farm in the limits of Qormi that was being used as an unauthorised lodging for about 120 African immigrants therefore raised eyebrows.

There is no doubt that the living conditions provided by the owner of the farm to paying immigrant tenants were unacceptable. The Planning Authority justified its speedy eviction of the immigrants from the farm by taking the moral high ground and condemning the inhumane conditions in which the immigrants were living. It also reassured the sceptical public it would ensure the farm would only be used for the purposes it had been built.

Most of the evicted immigrants were left to roam the streets with no shelter while the wheels of the law continue to turn as slowly as even when it comes to taking punitive action against the perpetrators of this alleged abuse. Leaving vulnerable people of whatever nationality or legal status to roam the streets is, for most people, more inhumane than letting them shelter in a cattle farm that, true, was never meant for human habitation.

Who can blame those who believe that the moral values of the nation under a social democratic government that is enjoying the benefits of a booming economy are quickly slipping as the weakest in our society are marginalised?

The 21 NGOs that issued a joint statement acted as the nation’s voice of conscience when they described this incident as a “story of exploitation, abuse and dehumanisation”. They are also very close to describing the reality that many believe we are living when they argue that “sustaining economic growth in Malta is dependent on diverse forms of migrant labour”. A quick tour of the numerous building sites in various parts of the island confirms how painfully accurate is the assessment of the NGOs.

The government’s and its agencies’ complacency about the negative trends developing in the country needs to be reversed if we are to avoid our society becoming one of the most unfair in the EU. A mixture of rising housing costs, almost complete unavailability of social housing for the most vulnerable and the tolerance of abuse of African immigrants by unscrupulous employers are evidence of government failures in ensuring cohesion in society.

The Prime Minister has promised that, in the coming months, Malta will see another flow of investments that, presumably, will deliver more ‘affluence’. But this economic investment should never serve to bankrupt the social infrastructure that underpins our moral values as a nation.

The neo-liberal economic policies may be delivering quick returns to those who are affected positively by them. However, they are also opening a vast chasm between the haves and the have-nots in society.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial