So that’s why they call it the ‘black market’…

It is, after all, just a direct consequence of our own policies… and if we’re simply going to stick to those failed policies, regardless: well, we can’t exactly expect the consequences to be any different, can we…?

Under normal circumstances, I would probably feel compelled to apologise for such a ‘racist’ – on the surface, anyway – choice of headline. But let’s face it: the circumstances we are living are not exactly ‘normal’, are they? And they haven’t been normal for… oh, quite a while, really…

But onto the business. You will, no doubt, have already guessed that this article is ultimately going to be about what happened to Jaiteh Lamin this week: you know, the 32-year-old construction worker from Gambia, who was dumped in the middle of the road (and effectively left for dead) after a construction-site accident…

You will also know that the ‘contractor’ in question – who does not appear to be registered with the main trade-representative body – is now facing at least 22 different charges in court: including endangering Lamin’s life and safety… but also, a long litany of offences related to Malta’s labour/employment legislation: employing people without a work permit; offering substandard wage/work conditions; not paying social security contributions… that sort of thing.

Lastly, you will by this time surely have read, and digested, all the inevitable reactions from all Malta’s political parties, civil society groups, unions, employers’ associations… all the way up to the President of the Republic, as it happens.

And pretty much all of them said the same thing. That they were ‘shocked’ – or ‘saddened’, or ’outraged’, or ‘disturbed’: take your pick – by the occurrence; and that it should serve as a ‘wake-up call’ to embark on some kind of concerted action ‘to combat racism’ in the country. (Justice Minister Owen Bonnici even unveiled a government strategy to that effect: but more of this later).

As for my own reaction: I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just as disconcerted – disgusted, even – as everybody else…

But I can hardly claim to have been ‘shocked’ – or even ‘remotely surprised’, for that matter – because… well, let’s just say that a revelation like this can only properly ‘shock’ you the first time it happens. And in my case: that initial shock came around 15, maybe 16 years ago…

Which brings me back to the choice of headline. Naturally, I will leave it to you to judge whether the comment itself – which I originally heard from a Maltese taxi-driver, around 2005/6 – was ‘racist’, or not. But first, a bit of context.

It happened on the way to the airport: a trip that inevitably took me through Marsa’s Aldo Moro Avenue, at a time – approximately 6am – when I would normally never be anywhere near that place to begin with.

This is, in fact, probably the only reason why I was so totally unprepared for what I saw. When the taxi reached the main roundabout of that thoroughfare – where December 13th Avenue meets Albert Town, to be more precise – I was greeted by the sight of a large congregation of people, seemingly lounging about by either side of the road (and some slap-bang in the middle of it, too)… for no apparent reason.

They were all male; all aged between around 17, and around early 40s; and I’m guessing they were mostly residents of the nearby Marsa Open Centre… which will also give you an instant idea of a few other details: such as their provenance; their general status within society; their state of material depravity (many of them were barefoot, for instance); and, not least, their skin colour.

Yes, folks: they were all, without exception, ‘African asylum seekers’… ‘boat people’… ‘irregular immigrants’… ‘klandestini’… ‘suwed’… take your pick. And by my count, there must have been at least 400 of them….

Looking back, of course, I realise it was incredibly naïve of me: but at first glance, I took it to be some kind of ‘silent protest’ or other… perhaps about the conditions of the Marsa centre itself (there was a lot about that in the news, back then); or possibly, even a religious activity of some kind…

Anyhow: it fell to that Maltese taxi-driver to explain to me – in clearly amused tones – that what I was witnessing was actually a daily (and widely-known) occurrence. Those 400 or so people – ‘and there are usually many more’, he added – were all hoping to be the lucky ones singled out for clandestine employment that particular morning… by nameless employers who would sooner or later turn up in their vans; decide, there and then, whom to pick up, and whom to leave by the roadside… and then quietly drive the ‘chosen ones’ off to some equally nameless worksite or other: where, of course, they would all be shamelessly, and blatantly… EXPLOITED.

And that, incidentally, was when the taxi-driver cracked that joke of his. Having pointed out that the practice was effectively a ‘market’ (and indeed, it is scarcely distinguishable from the slave-markets of old); and having unnecessarily laboured the point that the commodities on sale were all, without exception, ‘suwed’…

…well, you’d probably still see that punchline coming, even if I hadn’t given it away already. A new definition, perhaps, of the term ‘black market’; but one which – however racist it may appear – doesn’t really detract that much from the original meaning, either.

For regardless of any racial overtones: what was happening on that Marsa street corner was – and still is – blatantly illegal.

And it’s the blatancy of it all – much more than the illegality – that had shocked me so much. It’s not as though I wasn’t vaguely aware that something called ‘worker exploitation’ existed; and that it is inevitably also going to happen in this country, just like everywhere else in the world.

But that that it would all be carried out so… openly? So undisguisedly? So very much… in the public eye…?

And on Marsa’s Aldo Moro avenue, no less: you know, the road that takes you to the airport… that connects the north of the island to the south… not to mention the one place where all companies and corporations (and very soon, political parties) always fight to get their billboards erected… because – with the possible exception of the Mrieħel Bypass – there is simply no other part of Malta’s entire roadwork network that will give you more instant visibility, for the money you actually spend…

Yet, oh look: it just so happens to be the same place where all the participants in a daily, illegal ‘black market’ – in all the senses implied above – choose to conduct their illegal transactions. In other words: in full view of anyone who happens to be driving past… a category which could (and certainly does, every day) include the police…

Call me naïve: but I have to admit, that did take me by surprise (and still does, to be honest). For let’s face it: if we were talking almost about any other illegal activity you care to name – for want of a better example: let’s say, drug-trafficking – well, you’d hardly expect to drive through one of Malta’s busiest streets, and witness ‘packages of cocaine’ being casually unloaded from the back of a parked van, to be sold to the highest bidder – right there and then – just like vegetables at the Pitkalija…?

(And it’s just as well, because otherwise… there’d be nothing stopping drug-traffickers from going the whole hog, and doing it the ‘Doughnut Man’ way: by affixing loudspeaker on their van, and proudly advertising their wares in every town and village: ‘Hawn tal-Kokaina! Kokaina friska! Ara xi ġmiel ta’ Kokaina hawn…!’)

And yet: when it comes to infringing certain other laws in this country – labour laws, in this case – well, quite frankly they may as well just jump right into the ‘Doughnut Man’ approach from day one. After all, as that taxi-driver had so smugly informed me, all those years ago: everybody knows WHAT happens; everybody knows WHY it happens; everybody knows HOW it happens… and everybody even knows precisely WHERE it happens, too (because, like I said: it’s not exactly very well-hidden, is it)?

So if ‘everybody knew’ about this unsavoury state of affairs all along… then how on earth can anybody (least of all, the authorities – including government – who are responsible for law enforcement in this country) claim to be, of all things, ‘surprised’?

And more to the point: how can anyone propose ‘an anti-racism policy’ – built on ‘four main objectives’, we are told; and featuring no fewer than 22 proposed ‘measures’ – which somehow, spectacularly, omits to even mention the two factors that Jaiteh Lamin’s experience made so manifest in the first place?

In case it wasn’t already abundantly clear, these include:

a) the need to clamp down, once and for all, on a BLATANT illegal racket involving modern-day slavery (and right under our very noses, too), and;

b) the need to give people like Jaiteh Lamin – and there are tens of thousands like him – the opportunity to eventually regularise their position, through a citizenship-by-naturalisation programme.

What we are doing, however, is effectively the opposite of all that: we are (very deliberately, it must be said) ignoring the wholesale disregard of labour laws… and we are also selling citizenship like hotcakes (or ‘doughnuts’, if you prefer) to millionaires who have no connection with Malta at all.

Small wonder, then, that a few of the people we have so brusquely swept under the carpet – and whose existence we still continue to ignore; even now, in spite of everything – would occasionally end up forcing us to take notice, against our will… by literally getting themselves dumped on a roadside: for all to see, and cry ‘scandal’ about…

It is, after all, just a direct consequence of our own policies… and if we’re simply going to stick to those failed policies, regardless: well, we can’t exactly expect the consequences to be any different, can we…?