Beware the socially toxic proposals of ‘Malta’s employers’

The Malta Employers Association’s anti-people Budget proposals forget one important thing: we work to live, not live to work

Unfortunately, the MEA document is peppered with neoliberal anti-people proposals
Unfortunately, the MEA document is peppered with neoliberal anti-people proposals

I cannot say I was surprised by the proposals of the Malta Employers’ Association for the 2019 Budget. It is patently obvious that each sectoral association seeks to defend and promote the interests of its members, at times unfortunately to the detriment of other sectors. 

With few exceptions, the employers’ demands are ideologically neoliberal and based on the premise that society is some kind of barrier preventing them from getting on with their business. The fact is that employers depend squarely on a well-functioning society, on infrastructure and services provided by the State and on healthy communities. And like everyone else they are duty-bound to contribute to state coffers and public services. 

There are some points in the MEA’s budget proposals which are rather easy for us to agree to: the need to develop a sustainable blue economy, made time and again by AD; the phase-out of diesel and petrol vehicles to move towards electric vehicles, also echoing AD’s stance in the 2017 electoral manifesto (which even suggested a 20-year deadline)... it is good news that MEA sees opportunities in the transition to cleaner energy in transport. 

MEA also mentioned direct orders: it is obvious that the indiscriminate and habitual use of direct orders as a public procurement mechanism is worrying, not least because it may put people’s livelihoods at risk and pump money into some companies at the expense of others. It is above all an irresponsible use of public funds. Exceptions and emergencies should not become the norm. 

And the issue of the indiscriminate, ‘left, right and centre’ appointments of people to ‘positions of trust’ is also an issue heavily criticised by AD over the years. Such positions should only be possible in ministers’ private secretariats. Otherwise it is an abuse of power and just another tool to circumvent the checks and rules of the civil service enshrined in the Constitution. 

The MEA suggests an ‘independent board’ to monitor positions of trust – of course, given the poor and shallow political mentality in Malta, with ‘representative from the opposition’. There is absolutely no need for ‘positions of trust’ outside ministries’ secretariat staff. Inventing boards and promoting state capture by the PLPN tandem is not a solution. It makes things even worse, giving abuse and bad governance an aura of respectability. 

But unfortunately, the MEA document is peppered with neoliberal anti-people proposals. While lauding full employment as enviable, the MEA then laments wage inflation. Staunch defenders of the ‘free market’ do not like the effects of the laissez-faire economy. On one point the MEA is right, the economy is over-dependent on certain sectors, others are being left by the wayside. 

They repeat the ‘too many vacations’ gripe. But people work to live, not live to work! Maybe they want everyone on call, all the time. It is not populist to demand decent amounts of rest days: it is the effect of people appreciating better the good things in life! 

Then MEA is also demanding that any financial package negotiated by unions in the public sector should be given the green light by private sector representatives. Come again? The example use betrays their way of thinking: education, which is treated like a transaction or commodity. The MEA wants government to subsidise private schools. So what is the issue with MEA about people having made their own choices, for whatever reason, that they now should not carry the consequences of those same choices... including paying the fees necessary for that ‘service’? 

Some choices are justified and understandable. Others may be based on prejudices and misinformation. Keeping the salaries of teachers in the public sector low because private schools cannot afford the extra expense or because teachers in the private sector could move to the public, is unacceptable! This proposal in particular speaks volumes of the attitude of some in the MEA to teachers and schools as “incubators of social reproduction”. In my book the State is duty-bound to make sure that its essential services are well-funded and employs, in this case, adequately-paid and trained teachers. It is government’s duty to see that the schools for the many are well-equipped, generously-funded and staffed with well-paid and trained teachers. Let’s keep the market with its toxic values, away from education. 

On another issue the MEA seems to be cut off from reality: wheel out the usual right-wing mantra that people living off social benefits are some kind of threat to the common good. 

Maybe some employers should try living off social benefits for a year. The assumption that people purposely choose low-paid jobs is just typical of neoliberal rhetoric. Social problems are individualised – ‘it is their fault, they have low aspirations’. Simplistic statements do not do justice to the complexities of issues which lead to social problems which in turn affects the life trajectories of people. 

The one MEA proposal that wins top prize for simplistic rhetoric is this: “Social housing units need to be designed to provide minimum accommodation to encourage people to move out if they have the opportunity”. 

Well guess what, even owner-occupied properties ‘provide minimum accommodation’ nowadays. Just ask people with median wages trying to buy a tiny flat. When it comes to social housing the idea of a housing estate is old hat. Social accommodation should ideally be spread out throughout our communities, to avoid ghettoization. 

Yes, people should be helped to improve their lot and eventually move out. It is the simplistic blaming of people for their predicament from well-to0do industrialists and employers which is simply not on. Unsurprisingly the MEA didn’t mention how they can contribute more to society. 

I have an idea. How about making it compulsory for companies employing more than 50 (or shall we make it 20?) people to offer paid apprenticeships, twice-a-week to post-secondary students studying a trade, or profession? 

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