The employment agreement signed between Malta and Tunisia should be seen in the context of an ever-increasing need for skilled and unskilled labour to keep up with the demand that a fast-growing economy generates. This agreement has some positive aspects, but again raises questions on the sustainability of an economic model that depends largely on promoting high-risk activities, ever increasing private and public consumption, and massive construction projects.

The Tunisian Ambassador to Malta Zyed Bouzouita argues that this agreement should signal that there is a legal way to migration. Presumably, those who would want to leave their country in North Africa to seek employment abroad can hope to be granted a work permit to come to counties like Malta. 

While this could be the case for relatively politically stable countries like Tunisia, it is hard to envisage how such agreements could ease the migratory pressures from failed states like Libya, Somalia and Yemen. The migratory pressures from North Africa will continue to challenge the EU and especially Mediterranean states like Malta, Italy, Greece and Spain to find better solutions to stop desperate people from leaving their distressed countries. 

The most credible reason why the local employment agency and their Tunisian counterparts signed this agreement is that Malta’s fast-growing economy needs more skilled workers to cope with its massive construction projects as well as with demand for other services. This demand is qualified with the requirement that imported labour should come at the lowest cost possible. The Maltese economic model is looking increasingly similar to that of Dubai and other Middle East states that are dependent on cheap foreign labour to sustain their growth.

The consequences of perpetuating this model are well known. Demand for accommodation, for instance, will continue to exert pressure on the housing stock thereby increasing rents. The better-paid workers will compete with locals for average to high-end accommodation while the lower paid will be accommodated in mobile homes that pose the threat of becoming undesirable shanty towns. 

This phenomenon may eventually give rise to social tensions as happened in other even bigger countries where integration between the indigenous population and migrants was never achieved. The government will argue that the imported labour will only be granted temporary working permits, but the reality is that temporary shortages soon become permanent as employers get used to paying low wages to foreigners to reap the maximum economic benefits from their business activities. 

There were always times in Maltese history when we had to import labour to complete massive projects. The building of the breakwater, the massive Red China dock and the building of Mater Dei Hospital are such projects that could never have been completed were it not for the input of skilled foreign labour. 

What is different this time around is that most of the current projects are of a speculative nature that exposes the economy to major shocks when the economic cycle is less favourable. There seems to be little inclination by the Planning Authority to take into consideration the negative effects of a future economic downturn when deciding which mega projects to approve. 

Regulating the flow of foreign labour on the model proposed in the Malta-Tunisia is a positive development. However, such agreements should always be underpinned by a robust review of the sustainability of the current economic model.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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