Butlers to the cosmopolites? We’ll pay the price

Profit rules in Malta’s brave new cosmopolitan future, but we have no idea how to repel the brusque gentrification that is elbowing us out

In an interview with MaltaToday, Joseph Muscat suggested in no uncertain terms that his vision post-2017 was that of seeing Malta entering a more “cosmopolitan” phase of development. It’s a term that should conjure the vibrancy of global metropolises but in terms of Muscat’s economic vision, it’s the euphemism for trailblazer growth that – make no mistake – is going to hurt those who get left behind, and even those whose sense of Maltese identity is already being challenged by a market that responds only to money, not culture.

The State’s role, when it comes to this kind of neoliberalism ‘with a human face’, is to smoothen the rough edges of the free market. It is said, for example, that the spoils from giving the global rich a fast-track Maltese passport for example, will finance burgeoning education and health costs.

But recent events in Barcelona, Venice, San Sebastian and Berlin alert us to a much more subtle interference with our quality of life that strikes right at the heart of our inept Maltese soft power. In the first three, “anti-tourism” protests are hitting out at the inflationary effect on property prices by abnormally high levels of tourism. Arran, the youth wing of the radical Popular Unity Candidacy, has slashed the tires of rental bicycles and a tour bus as tensions rise over the impact that Airbnb, for example, has had on the local housing market.

In the German example, MPs have echoed the complaints of Berliners frustrated with the inability of restaurant staff to speak German. And here I recognise myself in this frequent bugbear when I read CDU deputy finance minister Jens Spahn saying that “it increasingly drives me up the wall that waiters in some Berlin restaurants only speak English,” adding: “You would never find this craziness in Paris.”

Malta is facing its own pressures as well. I’m stunned by the sheer ignorance of last week’s Sunday Times of Malta’s leader on NGOs in the Mediterranean, when the press is actually not even feeling the public pulse on the effects of economic migration – legal, highly-skilled, well-paid, and I dare say… a new class to whom we only want to act as the vicarious and well-paid butlers, janitors or landlords.

I am broadly speaking, a supporter of free movement of labour, much as I am a vehement devotee of human rights and the international obligation of my country to give asylum to those seeking the safety of our shores. But I recognise the failure on both fronts of us Maltese to welcome both sets of workers: on one hand, our racism punishes poor workers, whose limited skill-set are actually necessary to carry out a host of jobs this new economy needs; then when it comes to welcoming highly-skilled Europeans to their offices in Malta, all we care about is charging them high rents for the two-bedroom Swieqi apartment and hustling a dime with equally-overpriced food outlets.

And so it came that in nurturing this role as a xenophobic, chauvinist rent-seeking nation, it has now become too easy to lose whatever national self-esteem we once had. That perhaps, instead of just cashing in, we might want to welcome these people in ways other than simply catering to their expat needs – that they too might understand how we live, and that buying into Maltese-ness (if we could muster the pride to believe in this) can help us live better.

How? By sharing a common understanding on language. That, if new workers had to learn how to speak Maltese just as they need to speak English before swearing allegiance to the American flag, or have a functional knowledge of German in the non-English speaking cities of Bavaria, it might also help us become better and more compassionate neighbours.

That, we would come to share an interest in preserving the urban fabric under assault by the market’s demand for high-rise office and residential space, share an interest for greater open space for our children, or work together to export ‘Maltese-ness’ to a global audience through art, film, music and food.

For migration is good, for both the host community and migrant, be it the Thai care worker in Bugibba or the Maltese translator in Brussels. If you’re running an old people’s home here, it is thanks to Indian and southeast Asians that you can provide care for your residents; if you’re a construction developer, your workforce of Bulgarians, Serbians, and sub-Saharan Africans are saving you thousands on labour costs; nannies and old people’s private carers are probably Filipinos; your second home’s mortgage is now being paid by an Italian or Scandinavian worker. Or like me, you are thrilled at being able to eat out in Beijing, Sofia, Kabul, Istanbul, or Goa because of Malta’s newfound role to the global workforce.

We might want to welcome these people in ways other than simply catering to their expat needs – that they too might understand how we live, and that buying into Maltese-ness can help us live better

To only consider the diversity of our labour force today, should make us ashamed of having looked on unfazed as the puerile Maltese far-right took to the streets at the height of the African influx, when our only ‘burden’ was 2,600 asylum seekers in 2008. Yet now we applaud the high-rise of Mriehel, Sliema, St Julian’s and Gzira that is making room for at least 10,000 new workers and their families.

For this too, is the result of the free movement of labour and capital, that which has made possible selling apartments for half-a-mil or rents of €1,200 a month; the result of subsidising the landing fees for multinationals like Ryanair in return for their business or letting foreign multinationals pay 5% tax. Profit rules in the brave new cosmopolitan future Malta has, but we’re not even willing to challenge its supremacy on our lives.

But what about the people? What about those living in the shadow of high-rise, those whose green areas are threatened by the unstoppable seduction of property speculation, those who cannot afford the rent in the towns they were born in?

Are we not – like those well-meaning natives in San Sebastian, Venice, Barcelona and Berlin – also suffering some of the brunt of cosmopolitanism? In the busier towns – I speak for Sliema particularly – servers interacting with us do not speak Maltese (after five times being told to ‘speak English’ to simply buy a bottle of water, the pattern becomes irritating), renting an apartment if you do not have a job in i-gaming is now near impossible, and waste volumes have increased exponentially with evening-time collection hours rendering the streets a right dump.

It is a brusque gentrification that is hollowing out the community’s old haunts, now replaced with the vanilla blandness whose main consumer is the short- and long-stay tourist. Those with money dream of smoothening out the rough edges of the old towns to build waterfront properties. Those without the cash just see their streetscapes change, powerless.

Don’t call me a nostalgic or nativist curmudgeon. My newspaper too shares in some of the spoils of the new industries with their armies of new workers (we also lose out to high-value industries that pay salaries too high to match). But turning Malta into an airport is not my idea of nation-building. At some point, we have to get to terms with the way the fast pace of economic growth is changing the way we live.

More in Blogs