Social harmony can only be achieved in an environment where all workers are valued and treated with respect and dignity and where there is no unethical behaviour, especially by political and business leaders. It is everyone’s responsibility to show respect to the working environment, workers’ privacy, viewpoints, religion, gender, lifestyle, ethnic origin, physical ability, beliefs and personality.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s crude comment in a televised political debate justifiably shocked those who believe that every worker, irrespective of his/her nationality and the work s/he does, should be treated with respect and dignity. He said: “I do not want the Maltese to be collecting rubbish in the streets. Every job should be dignified but I do not want a situation where the foreigner is comfortable and the Maltese breaking their backs”. Some must have concluded he was pandering to certain people’s growing racist sentiments that seem to be fuelling the populist movements throughout Europe. The left-wing Moviment Graffiti labelled the comment “classist and racist”.

Though the adverse reaction was immediate, it took the Prime Minister more than three days to acknowledge that what he said could have been offensive: “After seeing the footage, I think I came through as insensitive and I wanted to apologise for hurting people’s feelings,” he said on Monday when asked by journalists.

A condescending and disrespectful attitude to low-skilled foreign workers may be applauded by bigots but will be considered as evidence of lack of empathy vis-à-vis those who most need support. Singling out low-paid foreign workers as being more suitable to perform menial jobs the locals shun amounts to misusing political power over a vulnerable group of people who often live in distressed conditions.

The Prime Minister should have used the TV debate to say how he intends to improve the educational attainment of both local and immigrant young people. His mantra of making Malta the “best in Europe” certainly does not apply to his government’s achievement in education.

He would have also been more productive at a political level had he explained his plans to ensure that immigrant workers and their families would be given a chance to integrate into Maltese society through better training, education for their children and decent housing.

All members of Maltese society, whether locals or immigrants, have a right to aspire for a better future for themselves and their children. Unfortunately, some never see their dream come true, partly because the odds are stacked against those caught in the poverty trap. For these, becoming part of the working poor is all they can achieve in a generation.

However, it is shameful that locals can exploit the political patronage system that often guarantees them a cushy job in some State-owned entity while foreign low-skilled workers have to toil hard often in low-paid backbreaking jobs.

The Church, which has a long tradition of social teaching in favour of all workers, has already voiced its concern about the unfair comments against low-skilled foreigners even if, when he spoke on Sunday, the Archbishop did not refer directly to what the Prime Minister said. Though Dr Muscat ‘apologised’, trade unions, NGOs and genuine believers in social justice would do well to make their voices heard.

The erosion of social values, including that of respecting the dignity of all workers, inevitably threatens social cohesion.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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