Some migrant workers are made to sleep on construction sites and the “rent” is deducted from their wages. Others are trapped in abusive jobs because the law gives them an unrealistic 10 days to find a new one... or lose their status.
Landlords raise rent suddenly, knowing that a migrant has no choice but to pay because they need their address to keep their identity card. Some desperate women consent to give sexual favours as part of their rental payment.
These are among the realities faced by migrants who are being exploited because of weak policies and laws, and lack of enforcement, a conference heard on Wednesday.
“These policies are being weaponised and used by business owners to silence migrants. They are denying them their fundamental human rights,” said YMCA Malta Head of Home Christian Inkum, as he presented the key findings of the project titled HomeInclusRation.
A White Paper with key recommendations and findings has been sent to the government.
The project was carried out by representatives of the Platform Against Homelessness that held roundtable discussions and interviewed several people who experienced homelessness.
It painted a picture of employee exploitation, unknown working rights by employees, the desperation of employees to retain their identity cards, and unfavourable laws.
Inkum said one of the main challenges faced by migrants was the result of the unfavourable legislation and policies that seemed to be “designed to favour business owners and silence migrants".
This includes the 10-day period given to an economic migrant to find another job when they lose their employment.
If they do not find a job within 10 days, they lose their status.
This has “become the principal engine driving abuse. The fear of quitting and not finding another job within the stipulated period keeps them silent to abuse while employers tend to use this law as a weapon, fuelling further abuse," he said.
What if migrants went on strike?
Inkum added that the migrant population played an important role in the economy with many working in tourism, construction and sanitation.
“If they go on strike, construction will come to a halt… When you take out your garbage and it’s not there, someone is doing the job.
"We know who the ones who run behind the trucks, keeping our cities clean, are. That job has to be done by somebody and that person deserves rights like everybody else.
"It cannot be that people are treated differently because of where they come from and the colour of their skin,” he said.
Migrants also suffered from a lack of rent protection.
Property owners, Inkum said, preferred to rent to foreign nationals because the law made it easier for them to vacate the tenants should the latter fail to fulfil the agreement... if there is one in place.
In addition, landlords are fully aware of the need for a housing contract by third-country nationals or stateless people, in order for them to obtain a working permit or asylum seeker documentation.
One of the issues flagged by the documents as an issue that is leading to homelessness is the disproportionate income-to-expenditure ratio.
Migrants earn less than €10,000 a year on average.
They are paid a pittance in a world where prices keep rising. It is clear that the minimum wage – about €800 monthly - is not enough.
It does not cover rent when a single room costs about €400 and a bed goes for about €250 monthly.
The conversation has to shift to a liveable wage rather than a minimum wage, Inkum said.
Lack of information
Lack of information and misinformation about their rights was also flagged as a way that opens up migrants to abuse.
While there is a lot of information online, the demographic that needs the information is not accessing it as they cannot read in English or Maltese.
Detention and open centres should be the primary place to start learning the official language.
Identity Malta should be part of the information-sharing process. There is a need to re-assess the way information is presented and disseminated, he said.
Problem starts at home country
The platform noted that the problem originated in migrants’ home countries where they are required to pay large amounts of money to travel agents who, in turn, promise lucrative jobs.
However, upon arrival, the promise is broken and they are paid below the minimum wage for work in poor conditions.
Some are handed over to another agency which takes a quota of their hourly minimum wage for finding them a job.
Sometimes these employers do not provide a contract of employment nor inform them of working benefits, denying them entirely of their rights as a worker.
Some construction workers are made to sleep on construction sites with no basic amenities. The sites are even considered rented spaces by employers.
As a result, employers take a cut from their pay, to cover 'rent', with the workers receiving less than the minimum wage owed to them.
In other cases, migrants resort to housing that lacks hygienic bathroom facilities and adequate ventilation, causing allergies and infections.
Many Maltese don’t want relatives to know they're homeless
Patrizzia Gozito, head of residential development at YMCA, noted that one of the key points of this project was the right to affordable housing for all.
This issue was not limited to migrant workers: “more than 60% of people in our shelters are Maltese,” she said.
Quoting recent figures issued by the National Statistics Office she noted that 35 per cent of Malta’s population earns less than the national average wage of €21,000.
“Many of the Maltese people we have don’t want their relatives to know they are homeless.
"They take time off to go to family gatherings like weddings, and no one there knows they are homeless. We see this every day. We even had Maltese teenagers who did not want to go to school because they don’t want people to know they are homeless.”
There were also people struggling to find a home since they knew of landlords who will not rent to Maltese because "they know their rights", she added.