The family is not only the focus for social policy but it is the essential focus of social policy. This complex yet natural environment needs enabling policies in order to ensure its well-being.
These policies must be ever-changing and flexible to ensure equity, so that the family is always in a position of strength. As Malta’s economy grew, the value of quality of life, and by deduction, the need for work-life balance policies assumed greater importance.
Malta’s employment rate stands at circa 75.5 per cent, which is higher than our national target and also the EU average. This notable increase is to a large extent a result of the increase in female participation in the labour market these last few years, now standing at 64.1 per cent. However, notwithstanding a 20 per cent increase in the female participation rate in the last 10 years, the current 64.1 per cent figure is still 3.3 per cent under the EU average. This rate needs improving and we aim to achieve that.
At the same time, the gender employment gap has also decreased but is still high compared to the EU average, even though women in work are on the rise.
The age group of 25-29 years showed the best percentage of women in work. In fact, the employment rate for this cohort is 82.9 per cent.
On the other hand, there was a decline in the number of women in the labour market between the ages of 30-34.
This clearly shows that a good number of women are still leaving the labour market to raise children.
Women’s career interruption often affects their hourly pay rate, future earnings and pensions. Work and career interruptions are one of the major causes of both the pay and employment gaps.
In contrast, men from the same age group have shown a considerable increase in their work participation since they have much fewer interruptions to their careers. Results have shown that the rate for men in full-time employment is a high of 86 per cent, while the rate for women in full-time employment is 56 per cent.
This highlights the fact that on average, women work 36 hours per week compared to the 41 hours per week for men.
One should expect more policies and measures that make it easier and worthwhile to work
In light of this, the national gender pay gap between the average annual earnings of men and women in 2017 stood at 12 per cent. The main reasons are: lower hourly earnings, working fewer hours in full-time jobs, working in part-time jobs, and the lower employment rate for women. In terms of money, women earn 88 cents for every one euro a man makes per hour.
For these reasons, the overall gender earnings gap in Malta stands at four per cent higher than the EU average. This is an issue that we are committed to address.
The policy of “making work pay” provided a secure and meaningful option for women and men to be able to leave the benefit system and to enter the labour market.
Further variations included income tax rebates for long-term unemployed women on re-entering work, benefits and maternity leave for self-employed women, expanding availability of before and after school care, leave to care for sick children, creating in-work benefits for low income workers, financial incentives for employers to introduce work-life balance measures, subsidies for recruiting the long-term unemployed and those who are in vulnerable situations such as victims of domestic violence.
These are some of the policies that this government introduced and which have brought us this far but not as far as we like it to be, at least as yet.
All this being said, the policy in pole position was the provision of quality and free childcare. This measure did not only push the employment rate of women upwards but improved substantially their disposable income without the burden of paying for childcare.
Furthermore, the non-statutory family friendly measures such as teleworking, flexi-time and reduced hours provided an alternative to the traditional working environment, aiding further a better integration of work and family duties.
This is where integration comes in, as it focuses on getting work and working in life harmony. The main aim is to unify these two factors in order for them to complement and not oppose each other.
In this regard, one needs to adopt a flexible working arrangement that accommodates this aim. However, working arrangements should not be determined by how willing, or competent, the manager is in devising flexible arrangements but rather it must be a conscious and strategic decision by management in that integrated systems of work life arrangements is good business. Such non-monetary measures are equally important and often more relevant and appreciated.
These measures put together promote an inclusive economy, where everyone has the opportunity to contribute while making a marked difference to address gender inequalities and improved quality of life of working women.
It is an agenda which, while nurturing the principles of a market economy, is firmly rooted in the values of social justice and a cohesive society.
With this in mind, for the time to come, one should expect more policies and measures that make it easier and worthwhile to work, while government shall continue to monitor the labour market to offer better deals including adapting to new ways of working. This in turn can be a critical key that gives us the competitive edge over others.
Michael Falzon is Minister for the Family, Children’s Rights and Social Solidarity.