“In Malta, black people are only tolerated as far as the Marsa roundabout where they are left to beg for work…There is too much racism in the country… while we have the luxury of ignoring this, it will come back to haunt us in 10 years’ time, as is the case with other European countries. Future generations will question why we didn’t learn from the mistakes of other European countries.”

Five years down the line this prophetic quote has come back to haunt us following the harrowing ordeal of Jaiteh Lamin, a migrant construction worker who was allegedly left grievously injured at the side of the road by his employer after falling from a height while at work. What is even more incredible is the fact that the aforementioned warning had been sounded by none other that former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat in the 2016 Freedom Day speech. 

Fast forward to 2021 and it seems the situation has only gotten worse. Migrant workers are still begging for work at the Marsa roundabout and the Maltese economy is increasingly becoming reliant on what some experts have termed it as modern slavery. Though the latter term seems extreme, the situation of these migrant workers who are being recruited in appalling working conditions with no employment safeguards at all, no social benefits, sick leave, vacation leave, salary rates below the minimum wage and no occupational health and safety safeguards justifies such tag.

Moreover, there are worrying signs other category of workers are being exploited like those who work in the platform economy such as the food couriers whereby they are offered a job on condition they registered themselves as self-employed while they are not. In reality these couriers are at the complete mercy of a computerised application which dictates decision like deadlines for the deliveries which ultimately have a lasting effect on the employees. No wonder they are seen rushing with their bikes as any delay might cost them dear. However, these platforms are ultimately owned by third-parties and hence these workers are no self-employed at all. Such status is only imposed upon them so as not to be eligible for sick leave and vacation leave. 

Going back to the Prime Minister’s 2016 Freedom Day speech it is worth noting that the government in that legislature had been pledging to set up a temping agency for migrant workers. The objective was to crack down illegal and abusive employment by offering employers the opportunity to go through the proper channels and recruit a migrant through this agency even for a short period. For some reason, however, a lot was said, but this promise has never materialised. It would be interesting to hear what Finance Minister Clyde Caruana will be saying on the matter in the forthcoming budget speech given, he was at the helm of the Jobs Plus agency when this proposal had been unveiled.

2016 was also the year in which the government had a separate proposal on the table to tackle abuses and precarious employment. That year UHM Voice of the Workers had unveiled its proposal for the setting up of an online employment contracts portal.  The main scope is to create a new system, accessible via web, that would facilitate generating working contracts in a structured, fast, dynamic and easy way. The portal would serve as repository for employers who wish to create employment contracts based on specific templates, but more importantly containing no clauses in breach of the law. This would be a giant step in the fight against precarious employment and exploitation.  The measure must be accompanied by legislative   steps to ensure it   will be no longer legal to recruit somebody without a written contract. Though on various occasion the government has acknowledged this is a very valid proposal it has never materialised. The proposal would make even more sense if it had to be complemented by another UHM recommendation – mandatory union enrolment for low-income earners who are the ones more prone for exploitation.

The question beckons. What if the temping agency, contracts portal, and mandatory union membership had been implemented? Probably Jaiteh Lamin would have never made headlines.