Extend the vote: No taxation without representation | Maria Pisani

Migrants are invited to come and work, but their presence is purely utilitarian: needed but not wanted, invited but not welcome. They serve an economic purpose, a means to an end

Dr Maria Pisani, Department of Youth and Community Studies

In 2013, under the premiership of Joseph Muscat, Malta adopted new labour market policies and took the active decision to become a more global cosmopolitan country.

The Government of Malta has solidly invested in marketing Malta as an English-speaking Mediterranean island that encourages investment and needs labour, and thousands upon thousands of migrants from around the world have responded to this invitation. According to the Labour Force Survey conducted by the National Statistics office in 2021, one in every four persons (25.7 per cent) residing in Malta was born in another country, and more than one third of the labour force aged between 25-54 are foreign born. Such numbers represent a phenomenal shift in the make-up of the population in Malta.

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Day-to-day encounters are transnational, as the islands have evolved into a multi-cultural society, with people from around the world contributing to the day-to-day hum of work, care, rest and play. Inward migration has resulted in economic growth that exceeded expectations.

Migrant workers are net contributors to the social system, supporting public finances through increased revenues from social security. Migrants are needed to support services vital to the wellbeing of the nation, including, but not limited to health, care and the hospitality industries. Their presence is celebrated in the array of culinary delights brought to our door step on request and the cosmopolitan image we market and project around the world. But herein lies the limits of Maltese hospitality; migrants are invited to come and work, but their presence is purely utilitarian: needed but not wanted, invited but not welcome. They serve an economic purpose, a means to an end.

A glance at recent history reminds us that at the heart of the Maltese nation, as a political project, was the enfranchisement of marginalised populations.

Just 76 years ago, the vote in Malta was extended to everyone aged 21, regardless of property, education or literacy, the size of one’s wallet or gender. The values driving Maltese civic nationalism at that time were those of liberation and equality, and universal suffrage (extending the vote) was recognised and celebrated as part of a progressive movement, an emancipatory tool in the process of decolonisation, and critical in overcoming barriers related to social class, gender, race and ethnicity. More recently, parliament voted to extend the vote to 16-year olds, recognizing and endorsing a key feature of democratic society: no taxation without representation. Today, a sizeable segment of the population of Malta, who make up more than a third of the adult labour force, are systematically disenfranchised, positioned within a racialised hierarchy marked by different degrees of precarity and exploitation. As a post-colonial state, we should be reminded that the struggle for democracy embodies the hopes, struggles and rights of the oppressed. It is time to extend the vote again.

Citizenship in Malta is notoriously difficult to access. The vast majority of migrants and beneficiaries of protection living in Malta do not ‘qualify’ for Maltese citizenship, they face insurmountable economic and bureaucratic barriers, unless of course, they are very, very rich.

As such, migrants living in Malta, are excluded from the democratic process. Disenfranchised, they have no say in the electoral process or policies that directly impact their lives, they are denied the political representation that is necessary to fight for their basic human rights to be respected, and their presence to be appreciated rather than tolerated (at best).

Far from the emancipatory value it may have served in the past, nowadays Maltese citizenship is being used as an exclusionary mechanism that reinforces inequalities and entrenches economic, ethnic and racialised divisions between those deemed to be deserving, and those who are not, between those who can belong, and those who cannot.

It is hardly surprising then, that the majority of migrants who come to Malta vote with their feet, and seek better conditions elsewhere.

According to the National Employment Policy (2021-2030), half of the migrants who come to Malta leave again within two years of their arrival. The low retention rate poses economic and service delivery challenges for employers, and also contributes to the fragmentation of Maltese society: how can you build strong communities of trust when your neighbours change every couple of months?

 Existing economic and social divisions within the Maltese citizenry demonstrate that enfranchisement on its own is not enough.

It is more than evident that whilst the economy may have boomed, the bounty has not been shared equally. As noted in the National Employment Policy, wages in Malta remain relatively low and do not reflect the pace or extent of national economic growth. Soaring rent prices, homelessness, poverty and inequality delineate deep rifts within Maltese society.

Meanwhile, the Government of Malta, and indeed also the opposition, have clung to a brand of ethno-nationalism that serves as a lackey for capitalism, and is mobilised to ferment racism and xenophobia and apportion blame to the immigrant (racialised) outsider. Their political rhetoric, economic and border policies instrumentalise and reinforce economic divisions, whilst disenfranchising thousands of workers and their families in Malta, thus simultaneously weakening the voice and political power of all workers and perpetuating labour exploitation.

It is clear that the Government of Malta’s particular brand of neoliberal cosmopolitanism cannot deliver on inclusion, equity and wellbeing for all.

A step in the right direction would be in removing the very real barriers to citizenship faced by a sizeable section of the Maltese population on who ‘we’ all depend, and with whom we share our lives. Extending the vote and increasing and supporting pathways to citizenship is vital for the inclusion of refugee and migrant communities in Malta, it is crucial for the representation and politicisation of all workers, and ultimately, critical to the wellbeing of Maltese society as a whole.