This is a bubbling cauldron which should not be ignored

It is this pervasive irritation and growing uneasiness which the Prime Minister should be paying attention to because if he chooses to ignore it (simply because the PN leader said it), he is risking a major problem on his hands. A cauldron of repressed anger is bubbling...

Foreign workers in Malta have increased exponentially over the past decade
Foreign workers in Malta have increased exponentially over the past decade

Speaking in parliament recently, PN leader Bernard Grech said, “The population has grown substantially and nearly doubled since 2013, and that is because for this government the importation of foreign workers is the only solution to its shortcomings in the economic sectors… There are two possible situations: either the government is hiding the true numbers of the population, or it does not know who is entering and leaving the country.” 

He is not wrong about the Labour government’s economic model relying on foreign workers, because that is clearly what is happening. 

But, as has been pointed out before, the sweeping statement that the “population has nearly doubled” is not substantiated by any real figures, and claiming that the authorities have lost control of immigration only serves to alarm an already alarmed public. 

A fact check by the Times debunked this widely-believed myth by concluding that, “For Grech’s claim to be accurate, some 316,000 undocumented people – around eight times the total population of Gozo – would have had to evade the authorities’ sights.” 

The Opposition leader needs to be very careful that he is not stoking the fires of an already volatile situation with his throwaway remarks. In subsequent days, he had to reel it back and clarify that speaking about over-population is not tantamount to xenophobia, but let’s face it - the line between the two is very fine indeed. When referring to over-population he is obviously not speaking about the Maltese having too many babies. Nor is he speaking about EU nationals. This is not to say we should not speak about the elephant in the room, because we should be able to speak about everything, no matter how uncomfortable or politically incorrect it might sound. 

In fact, what Dr Grech has done is to put his finger precisely on the pulse of the nation and its anti-foreigner (or, more specifically, TCN) sentiment; a sentiment which has been brewing for a while. 

This sentiment is worrying for several reasons - many of which were outlined and very well-explained in the analysis by James Debono, Is Bernard Grech Opening The Floodgates For Norman Lowell?, which was published in this newspaper. 

Now whether this is deliberate political expediency to gather support for a Nationalist Party which cannot seem to make any headway, or whether he is merely conveying genuine concerns, the PN leader’s statements have struck a nerve. The examples he gave may be anecdotal but I have heard them over and over again myself: a woman who is afraid to get on the bus because of the high number of foreigners, and an LSE who complained that most of her students are foreign. 

As if to reiterate how dangerous this sentiment is we had a case heard in Court this week where we were told that the accused was at a bar with his relative who began shouting and swearing because he was not being served since the barman did not understand Maltese.  When a bouncer tried to calm things down, he was savagely beaten around the head and face by the accused with brass knuckles. In the fracas, another security officer was also injured.  This incident happened in 2019, and the fact that someone flew into a violent rage at the time makes me wonder how much more anger has been building up since then. 

The language issue is arguably one of the things which make people the most prickly. This is completely understandable: “Why should I have to speak in English rather than in my native tongue” is a common complaint.  The lack of communication can be more than just a nuisance, it can be a real risk factor, especially in the caring professions where elderly patients are mostly Maltese speaking and cannot convey what they need to the nurses and carers.  It goes without saying that in health care, not knowing the native language can mean the difference between life or death. 

The problem becomes even more accentuated when migrant workers cannot even speak basic English. I have watched foremen here in the perpetual construction site which is Mosta, yelling their heads off at hapless, baffled workers who are clearly not understanding their instructions. How are these men expected to operate heavy machinery, build new roads, lay down tarmac and carry out infrastructural works without knowing what their supervisor wants them to do? 

On Wednesday, a (foreign) worker was injured and had to be rushed to hospital after he was struck by a high voltage cable while carrying out works on Sliema's high street. Was this the result of a language issue, lack of skills or lack of proper supervision?  We don’t know because we are never told. 

Beyond language, then we have the intrinsic issue which is gnawing away at many people: that at every level and in every sector, the workforce is mainly foreign. 

It is this pervasive irritation and growing uneasiness which the Prime Minister should be paying attention to because if he chooses to ignore it (simply because the PN leader said it), he is risking a major problem on his hands. A cauldron of repressed anger is bubbling and it will not go away; this is not a topic which can be simply swept under the carpet. Rather than just calling Dr Grech “populist”, he needs to tackle people’s concerns head on especially, since the PN seems to be making this issue its main theme. 

Interviewed on Xtra, Bernard Grech said, “This country has limits; limits of space, land, and population. If we continue like this, in a few years, there will be more foreigners from outside the EU than Maltese.”  It is a foreboding which I hear echoed time and again everywhere I go. 

Meanwhile, PN MEP candidate Peter Agius posted a Facebook video of himself outside the Marsa State primary school asking whether it was fair for English to be used as a language of instruction in classrooms that host foreign children. (Although I can’t help but point out the irony of the PN complaining about the use of English.) 

Again, I am not saying Grech is entirely wrong about the country’s limitations, but his tone needs to be more measured and tempered to avoid whipping up even more of a fervour.   As things stand though, the person running the country is Robert Abela and it is he who needs to take steps to get the situation under control - for once Labour has to stop thinking just about money and focus on the mood of the country, before things turn ugly.