An economy built on modern-day slavery

Racism is a collective disease which desensitizes us from basic human compassion

This week’s tragic and criminal act – in which a contractor allegedly dumped a migrant worker in the middle of a road, after he was injured in a workplace accident – was a reminder that racism is a collective disease which desensitizes us from basic human compassion.

How else can one explain the act of leaving another human being stranded on a road, under those circumstances, instead of taking him to a hospital? It is the same mentality which, taken to an extreme, resulted in the 2019 murder of Cisse Lassana, by an army officer who was allegedly roaming the night in search of ‘easy pickings’.

It is also the same mentality which resulted in the recent, much-publicised incident in Mgarr, Gozo: where a mob beat up a Somali migrant, and threw him in to the sea.

Above all, however, it is also a stark reminder that racism does not exist in a vacuum, but is deeply rooted in Malta’s political economy. Let us not forget how the South of the United States was first built on the backs of slaves; and then (after the abolition of slavery in 1868) on black people, jailed for any excuse, who had to do hard labour for no money.

Let’s not also forget that the “marvels” of capitalism, throughout the Western world, have likewise been built on the blood of colonised, enslaved, and indentured labour. Immigrant labour is also the key to economic growth in countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates: where there is a sharp distinction between rich natives, and millions of imported and exploited workers from the Indian subcontinent.

Even closer to home, it was migrants from poorer European nations like Turkey, Portugal and southern Italy which fuelled economic growth in countries like Germany. What characterizes these examples is one common trait: cheap labour with no rights whatsoever.

In this sense, racism is not just an issue of hatred, but also emerges from greed. Racial theories are often a cover for the creation of an exploited underclass, and a cheap, precarious source of labour. In short, it is easier to exploit those whose humanity is denied and constantly questioned. That is why it is no surprise that racists often participate in the same economy which relies on migrant labour.

We live in a society where a racist division of labour has set down firm roots. In this hierarchy, migrants (mostly from Africa) are at the bottom rung: and as this latest incident so graphically illustrates, they are a cheap – and therefore, disposable – source of labour, to fuel a greed-based economy.

Moreover, one cannot but note the contradictory messages being sent out by politicians to the populace. On one hand, foreigners are depicted as a ‘threat’ or an ‘invading force’: a discourse which makes their existence here precarious, as the basic assumption is that they should not be here at all, and should ‘go back to their country’.

On the other hand, foreigners are also openly depicted as a resource: they are here to collect our rubbish and perform other dirty jobs, sustain our pensions, fill gaps and shortages in the labour market… but they are never considered eligible for full inclusion in our community. The underlying assumption is clearly that they are useful, only in so far that they contribute to make us richer.  Thus, we have a category which is useful but unwanted at the same time.

It is therefore no real surprise that we end up in situations where migrants are literally dumped on the road: after being used, and discarded when no longer useful. This is the dark side of the promise to turn the Maltese into a nation of ‘little rich men’. For what we have been seeing in the past years is a creeping mentality which views foreigners as nothing more than instruments for gain.

At the same time, there is also a competing narrative based on equality and solidarity: which in this case was personified by the decency of the citizen who stopped to assist an injured man, and accompanied him to hospital. It was also manifest in the numerous expressions of shock and solidarity; as well as a public collection to raise funds for the victim.

However, this basic sense of decency is evidently more of an exception than the norm: and this is in itself one of the most worrying aspects of the situation. It also underlines the importance of a national anti-racist movement: which addresses not only the moral aspect, but also the economic roots of the problem.

From this perspective, the construction industry certainly has a lot to answer for. It is clear that the ‘make hay while the sun shines’ mentality is an integral part of the problem. Part of the solution is to ensure that all contractors are registered: which would enable the authorities to strike off any contractor guilty of exploitation, racism and discrimination.

But it is our country’s entire economic model which needs questioning. For in its rush to become rich quickly, and at all costs… Malta has clearly lost its way.