Lela Subasic has been living on a friend’s couch since November last year, when she could no longer afford the rent.

Last February, the Bosnian national signed a contract of work with a hairdressing salon but has seen very little of her wages – and not a single payslip.

“You’ve made too many mistakes, so the money will go towards paying for them,” Subasic has been told by her employer.

Just after she lodged a complaint with the Department of Industrial and Employment Relations, which confirmed that an employer has no right to do this, the salon pulled the plug on her work permit by cancelling her contract.

Identity Malta gave her 10 days to find new work or leave the island. That was in July.

Subasic’s predicament is shared by dozens of so-called third-country nationals (non-EU residents), according to activists in the field who spoke to Times of Malta.

A third-country national’s residence permit is tied to their work permit. However, after applying for a work permit from Identity Malta, some employers do not register the employee with Jobsplus.

This allows them to get away with paying meagre wages, avoiding the payment of national insurance contributions or failing to fulfil all their obligations to their workers.

This kind of exploitation is commonplace, said Patricia Graham from the ‘Up in Arms’ lobby group.

“Third-country nationals are being employed illegally against their will, and often have to endure terrible conditions, because as soon as they speak up, the employer can threaten to cancel their work contract,” she explained. This would void their work permit.

“That leaves them 10 days to find another job or leave the country. The work permit is being used as a stick to beat their backs.”

We have been treated like animals

These people get no protection at all and many of them do not make enough money to get legal help, she added.

“We have been treated like animals,” said Subasic’s son, who has been going back and forth between Jobsplus and the department in a desperate attempt to help his mother since July.

“My mum has been working for free, unable to pay her rent and because she spoke up about it, her residence permit has been revoked.

“I am very disappointed in the institutions of Malta,” he said.

In the shadows: Lela Subasic and her sonIn the shadows: Lela Subasic and her son

“We have provided all the necessary documentation to show that my mother was employed illegally and not given her wages and more than six months later nothing has been done about it.”

Graham said she had been approached by dozens of foreign workers who have gone unpaid because they have not been registered with Jobsplus.

As soon as she reports their employers to Jobsplus, she “hits a wall”.

The government agency has told Graham that to initiate court proceedings against the employer, the employee needs to supply proof of payment.

“This is the wall I keep hitting with every single case I take to Jobplus. How can I give proof of payment when half the problem is that these employees are being paid under the table?”

An activist within the Nepalese community in Malta said he had come across about 20 third-country nationals in the last months who have not been put on the books and were either unaware or too scared to report it.

“Many don’t speak out due to the fear of the employer not renewing their work permit,” he said.

The situation creates a whole host of problems for them: to apply for a new work permit with Identity Malta, they need a termination of employment from their previous employer, which they cannot get their hands on if they were never registered with Jobsplus in the first place.

And without payslips, they cannot access state healthcare that they would otherwise be entitled to.

This is precisely what happened to Natalija Medic, a pregnant Serbian national who now has to travel back to her country to give birth because the private employment agency she worked for failed to register her employment as a cleaner.

“I kept asking them to fix my documents. My identity card was valid for another couple of months because it was registered under my previous employer, but I pushed them constantly not to leave it to the last minute,” she said.

In January she told them she was two months pregnant and asked them for five payslips which would entitle her to attend her antenatal visits for free and give birth in Malta.

The agency abruptly told her they had no more work for her and cancelled the application for a work permit.

“They told me no one would want me to work while pregnant and that I could forget the payslips,” Medic said.

Unable to afford antenatal visits, and the €3,500 it costs to give birth here, Medic has had no other choice but to leave her fiancé and return to Serbia. “It’s not fair what happened – I did everything the right way and worked hard for very little money.”

Questions sent to Jobsplus were unanswered at the time of writing.

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