Despite the increasing dependence on foreign workers for economic growth, there are worrying signs that institutionalised racism permeates the processes affecting these workers’ well-being.

The reasons for this moral and social disorder are not quite well defined. But the symptoms are clear for anyone interested in seeing fairness prevail in the way we interact with foreigners.

Dozens of activists and migrants called for the eradication of racial inequality when they gathered in Valletta on Saturday to call for a stop to injustice following recent incidents. These incidents relate to reports of law enforcement officials using violence against third-country nationals.

Protesters noted that the government’s official reaction to these incidents amounted to no more than rhetorical condemnation. There is little concrete action to hardwire racial equality and solidarity in the community.

Omar Rabbabah, a social worker, told the gathering: “Racism is a social construct and we can eradicate it with education, dialogue and empathy. But we need politicians to step up and be willing to change the system. Because, so far, they are not.”

Sadly, Maltese society is greatly desensitised to the gravity of racial discrimination and accepts it as normal while political leaders give it a low priority.

Another aspect of institutionalised racial discrimination relates to the laborious and often arcane process for employers to obtain a working permit for third-country prospective employees.

Alex Scicluna, a business director, told Times of Malta that he wanted to speak up after months of “going round in circles” from one authority to another, unable to fill vacancies at his catering outlets.

Times of Malta reported how third-country nationals were paying recruitment agencies thousands of euros to get a fast-tracked permit for which Identity Malta charges just €280.50.

Some employers argue that the working permit process is not functioning because of bureaucratic systems or possible shortage of human resources. But it is also legitimate to question whether there may be other, more sinister reasons for the failure to treat certain third-country applicants fairly.

The government knows that the liberal labour market policies adopted in the last several years are not sustainable.

The prime minister and the minister of finance have admitted that labour market policies need to change as the influx of foreign workers is putting strains on the social and physical infrastructure of the country.

Rather than proposing clear new guidelines for more sustainable labour market dynamics, the authorities may prefer to discourage employers from applying for working visas for third-country prospective employees.

This immigration control by stealth could be achieved by adding layers of bureaucracy to the dysfunctional working permit system.

The ministry of foreign affairs, which administers the visa system, has not explained why third-country nationals are being treated in this degrading manner. No reassurance has been given to the public that the process is not contaminated by abuse or corruption.

Institutionalised racial discrimination can only exist when political leaders show little appetite for standing up for what is right. Inertia in the initiation of action to embed fairness in all processes that affect people’s rights, whether they are local or foreign, is a sign of mediocre, weak leadership.

While education is the best way to dismantle institutionalised racial discrimination over the long term, urgent action is needed to eradicate the root causes of these injustices.

The first step in this direction could be clear public policy statements to ensure that foreign and local nationals are no longer treated as disposable economic commodities.   

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