Silvio Schembri sparked a wave of outrage this week when he slagged off the foreign workers who have done so much to produce Malta’s recent prosperity.
A pestilence is sweeping the globe, and the under-qualified over-promoted opportunists weighing down Robert Abela’s bloated Cabinet have regressed to knee-jerk amoral familism.
“Charity begins at home,” Schembri said, in an unintentional reference to how he got his job. “Our focus is Maltese and Gozitan workers. The moment foreign workers lose jobs they will have to go back to their country.”
In other words, “We got what we needed out of you. Now f*** off.”
What an arrogant attitude for a pampered Cabinet minister in his early 30s. You’d think he might have learned some humility after his previous ‘blockhead island’ portfolio produced nothing but hot air and dodgy shell companies.
What’s next? Giving citizenship to robots? Oh, wait… that was Silly Silvio’s idea, too. He must have quietly shelved it when he realised robots won’t pay for passports.
If there are any adults left in the room, now would be a good time to take over.
Of course, there were large numbers of people in Malta who found the Minister’s crass comment just as outrageous as taxpaying foreign residents did — and they took to social media to voice their disbelief.
Foreign residents also heaped praise on generous neighbours who check in on them to offer help, and landlords who temporarily reduced their rent or waived it entirely until they’re back at work. It’s tremendously inspiring to see the ways people come together in times of crisis.
But the claim that Schembri “doesn’t represent the Maltese as a nation” is unfortunately not true. This government is the face of the nation.
Despite the backlash, Schembri’s attitude struck a chord with his target audience of panicked readers. I actually saw newspaper commenters saying: “We have to help ourselves now. They should go back to their country and come back later when things are better.”
Why on earth would these people want to come back after being treated like this? So you can squeeze more work out of them for crappy wages? People don’t like to feel used or expendable.
Never mind that Schembri was forced to utter a vapid non-apology along the lines of ‘I’m sorry you were offended by my word choice’, and the Prime Minister’s later announcement contradicted his knee-jerk policy. Attempting something outrageous and then backing down has become a hallmark of Abela’s tenure, just as arrogant bluster marked the reign of Joseph.
Here’s the problem with the Economy Minister’s “Malta first before everyone else” approach.
Malta’s economy is dependent on foreign workers.
The iGaming industry — roughly 13% of GDP — is largely run by foreign workers, recruited abroad because management wasn’t able to find people with the right training or skills in Malta.
The tourism industry continues to run thanks to large numbers of seasonal foreigner workers who wait tables in restaurants, clean hotel rooms and take other jobs that nouveau riche Maltese feel are beneath them.
The construction industry is building on the backs of foreign workers, too, largely from Africa. They’re the ones dying on building sites because their Maltese bosses can’t be arsed to follow first-world safety procedures. Not when there’s quick money to be made.
Arts and entertainment: 58% foreign workers. Professional administration and support services: 34% foreign. Even the sale of European Union passports — roughly 1.38% of GDP — depends on foreigners.
As recently as last October, then JobsPlus head Clyde Caruana said Malta needed 10,000 more foreign workers each year to make up for the low numbers of Maltese in the labour market. Should they all suddenly choose to emigrate, “people won’t even be able to go to work because around half or three quarters of the public transport system will stop working, supermarkets won’t have cashiers and hospitals will have problems.”
So yes, by all means, tell those people to flock off back to their country. Who needs them, anyway? Charity begins at home.
But it isn’t just workers who will be lost. The financial well being of a lot of other people depends on foreigners, too.
A mass exodus of all those rent paying bodies will be the pin that pops the property bubble.
It’s difficult to pay the mortgage on an empty flat when rental revenue stops coming in. And it will be especially hard for those who jumped on the bandwagon and took out loans to invest in property so they could rent it to foreign workers at inflated prices.
When enough people default on their loans, you’ll find yourself in the middle of a banking crisis. And Bank of Valletta has enough problems at the moment, given its ongoing inability to convince a single foreign financial institution to trust it and offer correspondent banking privileges.
Sadly, that isn’t even the worst of Silly Silvio or Prime Minister Abela’s worries.
I wrote before the 2017 election that Muscat’s fast track to easy prosperity was doomed because it was built on taking advantage of Malta’s fellow EU member states while giving nothing back.
And I said, “I guess there’s always cheap tourism” if passport sales, iGaming and offshore financial services fell through.
Of course, I wrote that before COVID-19 struck a mortal blow to the travel industry. Global travel will be in intensive care for months after this pandemic dies down, and it’s anyone’s guess just what the recovery will look like.
Thankfully, normal people are pulling together at this time of crisis and helping one another while their hopelessly unqualified elected officials drift off on toxic clouds of xenophobia, desperate to save their own arses along with their taxpayer-funded perks by bodging together responses on the fly.
The global economy is taking a serious kicking with COVID-19, but it will recover. Unfortunately, I don’t have the same optimism for Malta. It only took one crisis for the massive systemic weaknesses to show.
The Kink of Kinks ‘best economy of Europe’ was built on very dirty sand, and a cough was all it took to blow his fragile castle down.