The Archbishop’s provocation

Scicluna questioned whether we Maltese have gone from being ‘the colonised to the colonisers’, highlighting how foreign workers in low-income jobs are being exploited and subjected to slave-like conditions

At a time when it has become fashionable to blame all of Malta’s ills on the foreigners who live and work here, Archbishop Charles Scicluna’s homily on Independence Day was timely. 

It provided a refreshing moment of reflection on the current economic model that has relied on the importation of mass labour for its growth. 

Scicluna questioned whether we Maltese have gone from being ‘the colonised to the colonisers’, highlighting how foreign workers in low-income jobs are being exploited and subjected to slave-like conditions. “Yes, we are guilty of all these things. And we should feel ashamed,” he said. 

Many commenters on social media took umbrage at Scicluna for saying the Maltese should be ashamed of themselves for treating foreigners with disdain. Many felt the Archbishop’s sweeping statement was too much of a generalisation that ignored the difficulties on the ground. 

The Archbishop may have applied a very wide brush stroke to tar everyone with his hard-hitting reflection. Not everyone looks down on foreigners and seeks to exploit them but we have to admit that this country has a widespread problem with racism and xenophobia. And if it is not racism and xenophobia, then it is ignorance. 

Scicluna’s reflection was a provocation that should have everyone stop and think about the current situation. And while the authorities have the onus to reflect on how the current economic model was built and propose how to transform it, every single individual has to reflect on personal attitudes and the words uttered in everyday life that may unwittingly convey messages of disdain or even hate. 

This does not mean the country does not have its challenges brought about by a sudden influx of foreigners over such a short period of time. This influx has undoubtedly created problems as much as it generated economic activity that has benefitted the country. 

The most obvious challenge is the pressure on the country’s infrastructure – roads, sewage, electricity, hospitals and health centres, and schools to mention just a few. 

But the influx has also caused social pressure in the form of language barriers between some foreign service providers and Maltese clients; cultural dispositions and attitudes that jar with Malta’s norms and laws such as the treatment of women and queer persons; and imported regional tensions that have created a new security dimension the domestic authorities were not privy to. 

These challenges must be acknowledged and the concerns they stoke in various sections of the population should be addressed. Ignoring them will simply drive ordinary moderate individuals with genuine concerns and fears into the clutches of the extremists. 

It is within this context that Scicluna’s provocation becomes necessary. Addressing fears and concerns should not result in a situation where foreigners are painted as the root of all evil. 

The Archbishop made particular emphasis on how foreigners are treated on the workplace, going as far as to call out what he described as slave-like conditions. 

The exploitation and discrimination must stop. Malta has employment laws that regulate worker conditions and these should be enforced to ensure employers do not abuse of their dependents, whoever these may be. If the laws contain loopholes that allow exploitation to happen in a legal way, they should be amended. 

Unions must play an active part in this by widening their membership base to include foreign workers. The unions will be able to act as watchdogs to ensure foreign workers’ rights are safeguarded and their dignity respected. 

But Scicluna also highlighted the increased poverty afflicting sections of the Maltese people, who have to endure poor living conditions and subsist on wages that can “barely get some through a week, never mind a month.” 

He also highlighted the growing dependence of hundreds on soup kitchens and homeless shelters to sustain themselves. 

“We cannot continue to rely on economic metrics that fail to take into consideration the quality and dignity of life. We cannot allow a climate to persist where the poor are treated with disdain and the foreigners invited into our country to serve us, are despised and insulted under the false guise of nationalism,” Scicluna said. 

He is right and every effort must be made to ensure economic growth is translated into wellbeing across all sections of society. By well-being we mean jobs that pay adequate wages and afford dignified conditions; occupational health and safety that is made a priority; a clean environment; communities that are safe and greener; an ethic that cherishes equality and respect for the rule of law. 

Finding the solutions to these challenges is not easy but in Scicluna’s words it certainly does not lie in ceasing to ask and seek.