Who will speak up for the poor now?

He was indefatigable on the issues which count: the harsh rental market which is seeing people resort to living in garages, and foreign workers who are being employed illegally, at wages below the minimum wage which leave them bereft of any rights

Veteran social justice campaigner Charles Miceli who passed away on Friday. Photo: Ray Attard
Veteran social justice campaigner Charles Miceli who passed away on Friday. Photo: Ray Attard

It is one of life’s cruel ironies that just as I sat down to write this column about the sheer cheek of MPs giving themselves improved pension rights, I learned that Charles Miceli, the champion of the poor, had died suddenly. 

Charles was tireless in his campaigning for a fairer society, and his organisation Alleanza kontra l-Faqar (Alliance against Poverty) was constantly pointing to the social injustice all around us.  He was not short of examples, unfortunately.  As the rich get richer, a new strata of poor are becoming more apparent, and not just something which we casually dismiss as only happening in other countries.  A true left-wing activist, who never for one moment backed down from his principles, irrespective of how much this may have irked exponents within the Labour administration, he is one of the few people I still admired – because let’s face it, it is becoming harder and harder to admire many people in this world any more.

He was indefatigable on those issues which count: such as the harsh rental market which is seeing people resort to living in garages, and foreign workers who are being employed illegally, at wages below the minimum wage, leaving them bereft of any rights. And one could sense, all through his observations, articles and comments on FB, how deeply saddened he was that a left-wing government was creating the very injustices it should have been striving hard to overcome, because of the direction it had taken where “money rules”.  His distaste for neoliberal policies was always palpable.

I regularly used to read the threads on his wall where he would gently debate these issues with those who did not agree with him, and never once did he lose his patience or his temper, but would continue to try and persuade naysayers who believe that market forces should decide everything. He would point out to them, again and again, that we have created a new type of poverty where basic decent housing was no longer affordable and how shameful this stark reality was in this day and age, especially when we constantly see politicians boasting about a booming economy.

The recent decision about MPs’ pensions is particularly galling. Whereas we usually see both sides of the House bickering on every little thing, and resorting to puerile name-calling (as we saw this week), when it comes to their own pockets, they have all suddenly become best pals.  Learning that the MPs have all agreed to award themselves a full two-thirds pension even if they have served just one five-year term, instead of the current two terms, is just one more twist of the knife for many who know that their own pension will only come after they have reached the age of 65.  And let’s not get too excited about how much that pension is going to be because at €800/900 it is already not enough to get by, let alone how much its value is going to deteriorate in another five - ten years. And yet, not a single MP had the decency to stand up and say, “this is not right”.   

After the initial shock, the accolades which poured in for Charles Miceli are a testimony to how much he was loved and respected, even by those who have never met him. In a world of fakery and pomposity, of people blowing their own horns, of drama queens and attention-seekers, who adopt ‘causes’ just so that they will be in the limelight, Mr Miceli was just himself. A true man of the people, whose instinct was always to help those who are less well-off and who are the downtrodden of society. 

In an interview with Raphael Vassallo in October 2015 for this newspaper he had said: “The problem is that the yardstick being used to measure poverty is flawed (‘fazulla’). Anyone who earns less than €7,500 a year – especially if he or she pays rent, what with the prices as they are today – is not ‘at risk of poverty’. He is poor. Simple as that. To call them ‘at risk of poverty’ is practically an insult… at least, to someone who worries about these things, like me.  …For other people, maybe it’s not an insult. But you tell me… If someone is living on €140 a week… sorry, but how can he live on that? There was an interview with the finance minister in [Sunday newspaper] Illum recently, where he said that ‘with two Euros from here or there, you can rise above poverty’. What is he saying, exactly? That if you get €140 a week, you’re poor… but if you get €142, you’re not?”

It was this ability to get to the heart of the matter, to speak in terminology which breaks it down to the very basics, which made him so relatable, and of course, he was also very right. Fast forward to two and a half years since that interview, and things have only become worse for those who fall into that infamous ‘risk of poverty’ category.

Earlier on Friday, the day he died, he was alerting friends on FB that someone was sending messages using a fake profile in his name. He was clearly worried, and understandably so, as the message was telling people how to access thousands of Euros, although as several of his friends pointed out, no one who really knew Charles would ever believe it was coming from him. It was a cruel and childish prank, but one of the unfortunate maladies of social media where it is so easy to do these things.

Unlike so many who use the Internet to cause damage and hurt others, Charles Miceli’s presence on FB was a beacon of hope. He will be truly missed, not only because he provided a sea of calmness and reason among all the silliness, frivolity and bickering, but because he kept reminding us all that we can never be complacent just because a lot are making money hand over fist and there is the semblance of affluence. For that affluence to happen, many are paying a high price, either by being exploited at the workplace, or by being forced to live in inhumane conditions which were unthinkable up to a few years ago.

One of his last activities was to represent Alleanza kontra l-Faqar, joining another 16 other organisations, to demand serious regulation of the rental market which would benefit both tenants and landlords. It was a cause very close to his heart, and he promised that he would be writing more about it in the weeks to come. Unfortunately, we will no longer be hearing his ‘voice’ on this crucial issue, but I hope his legacy will be continued by others, who will keep speaking up for the poor. 

As he said in the last column he wrote, “It cannot be that because of the greed of some people, we not only kill the goose that lays the golden egg, but we also continue to throw a growing number of families into a state of limbo… the important thing is that we do not just see up to the tip of our nose”.

RIP Charles Miceli. The country has lost a truly good man.

My deepest condolences to his wife Pauline and daughter Vanessa.

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