On a dusty and seemingly abandoned building site, Nikita*, 39, sits alone, smoking a cigarette, whiling away the time.

He is not a junkie and he is not homeless.

He is a Serbian construction worker employed by one of several local development firms that workers claim are exploiting them and cheating their clients. 

“I am sent to this site every day, where the construction company [that I work for] is supposed to be building a luxury development. Nearly every day I am alone, or sometimes we are two or three people, but the jobs we must do need 15 people, and equipment. So we do nothing, we do nothing all day because there is nothing we can do,” he said.

After weeks of being left at large sites practically alone, he said he was then visited by his boss who expected work to have progressed significantly.

“It is always the same. What am I expected to do on my own? Operate a crane?  Use a cement mixer?” he said.

Nikita said he was one of dozens of workers being exploited by a handful of local developers who had spread themselves too thin and were now taking it out on workers to save face with frustrated clients.

How can I build a villa on my own? This is crazy

On condition of anonymity, he and a handful of other mostly Eastern European workers told The Sunday Times of Malta about the dark side of the island’s construction boom.

“This is what happens,” Bogdan*, 24 says.  “The construction companies are being approached to take on more and more jobs and they accept. But the boss doesn’t have the resources [to see them through].”

Workers, Bogdan said, were then being spread across building sites, to watch over them, rather than carry out works, as there was little else they could do.

Once projects started falling behind schedule, however, the handful of workers were expected to finish projects alone or face illegal penalties imposed by unscrupulous construction firms.

“This is the problem. They are paying us almost half our salary. When I ask why, they say it is a penalty for late work. ‘Penalty for late work?’ How can I build a villa on my own? This is crazy,” Ahmed*, a 20-year-old Eritrean said.

Payslips seen by this newspaper show workers owed €1,200 being paid €700, with others receiving even less.

Sections for national insurance payments are also marked 0 or left completely blank.  

Nikita and Bogdan are two of several construction workers who this week filed a group industrial complaint against a number of construction firms after several months of docked pay cheques for what they insist are unfair penalties.

Government sources said the Department of Industrial and Employment Relations was aware of claims of such irregularities in the building industry after a number of reports were filed in recent months.  

But many workers are afraid to speak out.

“I can barely afford to pay my rent, I get worried that I won’t be able to buy food. I am 39, I have worked all my life and I cannot accept this situation,” Nikita said.

He said he was speaking out by reporting the case to the authorities but feared retribution.

“They have already told me that if I complain or make trouble then I will not find a job here. The situation is terrible, people need to know this is going on,” he said.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities.

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