Question time: Foreign workers
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Question time: Foreign workers

Are there alternatives to the employment agreement signed recently with Tunisia?

Marisa Galea, Communication Liaison Officer, Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade Promotion

Since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1967, Malta and Tunisia have strived tirelessly to enhance bilateral relations. The number of high-level visits and the agreements signed along the years are testament to this affinity. Of considerable note was the State visit to Tunisia by President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca on November 7 and 8, 2017 and the subsequent State visit to Malta by the President of Tunisia, Beji Caid Essebsi, on February 5 and 6, 2019. 

These visits, which also featured business fora, served as an opportunity to anchor the tradition of result-oriented political dialogue. The 11th session of the Malta-Tunisia Joint Commission, which took place in Malta on February 4, is also evidence of this symbiotic relationship, with technical experts from both sides endeavouring to bolster cooperation in areas such as tourism, transport, health, higher education and innovation, as well as vocational training and employment.

Once ratified, the Agreement on Temporary Employment signed with Tunisia on February 6, 2019 will act in tune with both countries’ labour market needs and trends, and provides a sound framework for Tunisian and Maltese nationals seeking temporary employment in line with the legislation and standing regulations of their host country. Vocational training and language courses will form a crucial element of this agreement to enable the integration of Tunisian and Maltese in their respective host countries.   

Such positive ties are attested by the considerable breadth of commercial exchanges and the substantial volume of touristic flows. In 2018, the number of Tunisians travelling to Malta stood at 5,423, whereas 4,900 Maltese were registered to have travelled to Tunisia. Air Malta’s introduction of direct flights between the two countries in June 2016, as a means to augment the existing Tunisair link, also complements these commercial and economic exchanges. 

The Agreement for the Avoidance of Double Taxation Agreement came into force in 2000. As Malta continues to open new doors for investment, Tunisia is encouraged to take the opportunity to invest in Malta at a time when the country’s GDP is at a record high, and enjoys favourable labour market conditions with an increased wage income that now stands at par with the EU average. 

Solidarity between the two nations is also strengthened through capacity- building measures that have been undertaken since 2015. Each year, the government of Malta sponsors a Master of Arts in Humanitarian Action that is offered by the University of Malta. 

In light of the existing excellent ties between Malta and Tunisia, the fruit of tireless years of consistent and determined work between both countries, one notes that the Temporary Employment Agreement ties in as a component of the excellent relations with Tunisia – a component which will continue to be strengthened in all its aspects for the benefit of both our people.

Francis Zammit Dimech, Nationalist Party MEP

When migration is discussed at EU level, the concept of providing legal channels of migration is often raised as one of the means to combat illegal migration. In this context, I do welcome news of the agreement reached between Malta and Tunisia for Tunisians to work in Malta on a temporary basis and within the context of a precise legal framework, in a manner that would address voids in the labour market.

That is certainly preferable to illegal migration where people are handled by mercenaries, risk their very lives at sea, and if they do survive are then offered piecemeal jobs by ‘generous employers’ who literally go and pick them up from areas like Marsa, give them remuneration well below what should be paid for the kind of work carried out, and doing it all through a labour black market which is a new form of slavery that regrettably is justified by some people who should know better.

Having said that, further comment about the actual agreement at this stage would not be appropriate in view of the fact that to my knowledge the actual text of the agreement has not been published, and in any case it has been reported that the agreement will be implemented “following the signing of an executive protocol between JobsPlus and the Tunisian employment agency”.  

I can only insist that both the agreement and the executive protocol are published for public scrutiny and accountability, and that we shall have no excuses about such agreements being kept secret for reasons of ‘commercial sensitivity’ or ‘data protection’ or whatever other warped excuse the government quarters resort to, to negate our right to know.

In the circumstances, a few general principles need to be emphasised. First and foremost, one would have expected the government to plan far better and ahead with regard to job requirements. We need to be sure that foreign labour, from whichever country, is not being imported on the cheap and in a way to render the situation of Maltese workers precarious. 

News about accommodating foreign workers in containers made to fit into quarries or even on a shared bed space basis in apartments is too atrocious for anyone with the least sense of moral fibre to accept. And for anyone thinking that it does not matter if we treat ‘foreigners’ on that basis, that person may need to think again – what about the effect on the Maltese people? What is the impact on rental prices in Malta? On working conditions for Maltese workers? On our social fabric and way of life?

That is why long-term planning and a vision for the future is what governments should be about. But shockingly enough, the Prime Minister has only recently said that he is not too keen on future planning. That is a sure recipe for the collapse of bubbles we might well be enjoying for the time being, but our very blowing them further will be the cause of their implosion. 

Long-term planning is not necessarily the alternative to the agreement reached with Tunisia but is certainly what is required to complement that agreement and to guide the country along the right path for its future.

Timothy Alden, Deputy leader Democratic Party and a Sliema local council candidate

The governments of Malta and Tunisia signed this employment agreement on the occasion of the State visit to Malta by President Essebsi of Tunisia. The reference to the signing of this agreement, buried in the middle of the last paragraph of a routine press release on co-operation between the two countries issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade Promotion, would have passed largely unnoticed if it weren’t for an uncharacteristically high-profile interview on the agreement given to the Sunday Times of Malta by the Tunisian ambassador to Malta.

Under a title spread across five columns claiming that “Malta-Tunisia jobs agreement ‘discourages illegal migration’”, the Tunisian ambassador explained quite candidly how the agreement will facilitate the legal migration of Tunisians to Malta, and how it will help reduce the unemployment rate in Tunisia, currently at 14 per cent.  

The ambassador emphasised that the agreement allows the families of Tunisian workers to join them in Malta, adding that Malta and Tunisia shared many cultural characteristics that make migration to Malta easier. The newspaper even quoted the Tunisian ambassador as saying: “Malta needs 13,000 foreign workers this year – I got this number from Education and Employment Minister Evarist Bartolo. Considering the excellent relations between the two countries and peoples, we hope to be able to provide a considerable amount of jobs that are needed.”

The significant increase both in the number of foreign workers/residents and in tourist arrivals are leading to severe overcrowding in what is already by far the most densely populated EU member state, and putting an unbearable strain on our services infrastructure, especially in the healthcare and housing sectors.  

The soaring costs of purchasing or renting of a home is pricing many Maltese out of the property market. The situation is further exacerbated by a poor public transport system and the exponential increase in traffic on the already congested Maltese roads. A building construction spree that seems to be totally out of control is causing widespread damage to both our cultural heritage and what remains of our dwindling countryside.  

All this coupled with a serious deterioration in our environment, including air quality and noise pollution. For those Maltese workers who are struggling to make ends meet on a minimum wage, this continued influx of foreign workers from Tunisia and elsewhere is not good news as the growth of the Maltese economy will continue to be underpinned by ‘imported’ cheap labour.

Furthermore, such an employment agreement can be characterised as unfavourable government intervention in the market. It would be better to allow our economy to evolve beyond the construction boom and encourage quality rather than quantity, respecting our environment and heritage. Endless growth is a vicious cycle.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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