Joseph Muscat may well play down the Nationalist Party’s warnings over the possible impact of a greater influx of foreign workers on the economy and social life, but it is the country that ultimately stands to lose if his government fails to look into what needs to be done to ensure sustainability.
One good definition of sustainability is that of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. As the economy keeps growing at a steady pace, the country is already experiencing the effects of the administration’s serious lack of planning over the past five years.
Vital parts of the infrastructure are creaking under the weight of a rise in population boosted by the influx of foreign workers and the steady rise in the number of tourists.
It is not just the Nationalist Party that is warning of the likely impact of unsustainability, but key economic observers as well. Dr Muscat had a point when he said that sustainable growth could not be achieved by expecting the economy to pause. Arguing this was unrealistic, he was against pressing the “pause button”; the economy, he said, only had “a play, rewind and fast forward button”, and that sustainability meant understanding the repercussions and planning for them.
“Planning for them” is precisely what his government has failed to do. Had it been alert enough to the likely challenges that a higher growth rate was expected to bring about in its wake, it would have ensured, for example, that the country will have enough social housing by now to provide a roof for those who could not afford the kind of stratospheric rent being asked for today for accommodation.
Tenants unable to match, euro for euro, the rent foreigners are paying for accommodation are being turned out of the houses or flats where they were living in for years, with a number having no alternative other than living in garages. This is a situation Malta has never experienced before, except perhaps during the war.
Yet, it is only now that the problem is staring the government in the face that it is working to provide social housing. The country already has some 40,000 foreign workers, and Jobplus expects that Malta will need some 40,000 additional foreign workers in the coming years for its economy to keep up with the current growth rhythm. This is a huge number for such a small island as Malta.
The impact this number could have on the infrastructure, including key supply services such as water, is tremendous. Again, it is only now that the government has taken in hand the road-building programme in earnest, far too late already in the current economic boom. The result is there for all to see – massive gridlocks everywhere, with drivers having to spend an hour, or even more, for a trip that ought to take not more than 15 minutes.
The problem has multiplied with the rapid growth in tourism, leading to serious shortcomings in public transport and to the sharp deterioration in the island’s general environment. While it may be unwise to press the pause button in all this development, it would be self-defeating to ignore the pressing need for some sort of forward planning.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial
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