‘Building the Railroad’

More than 20,000 foreigners have come to Malta in recent years: according to the JobsPlus director, “attracting them again, and in larger numbers, is a top priority now”

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

Economist Clyde Caruana, who heads the State employment agency JobsPlus, recently said in an interview that ‘thousands more foreign workers are needed to ‘build the railroad’ and keep the economy running.”

His choice of metaphor was particularly apt. The Transcontinental Railroad, built in the USA in the late 19th century, was instrumental in transforming that country from a wilderness – the ‘Wild West’ – to the economic powerhouse it is today. But that is not the only way it changed America.

Large numbers of foreign workers also had to be imported to build that railroad. These included immigrants from as far afield as China, Ireland, Italy... all of whom were eventually incorporated into the mix of nationalities and cultures that today makes up the American population in all its diversity.

It follows, then, that when we talk of ‘importing foreign labour’... we also imply, wittingly or wittingly, the intention to accommodate those foreigners as residents, and therefore part of the wider community.

It is debatable whether the metaphor was used with that specific intention in mind. Nonetheless, Caruana is certainly right that more foreign labour is needed.

Over the past four years the country’s average economic growth stood at around 6.4 per cent – far outstripping the EU average. Just last year Malta registered a net increase of 10,500 jobs over the previous year, a trend that shows no signs of abating. More than 20,000 foreigners have come to Malta in recent years: according to the JobsPlus director, “attracting them again, and in larger numbers, is a top priority now”.

The economic benefits of this influx speak for themselves. A recent Central Bank report noted that foreign workers had helped meet rising demand for labour, and that, had it not been for immigration, “in the last eight years Malta’s working age population would have declined by one per cent instead of rising by three per cent.” 

Elsewhere, it is increasingly evident that entire sections of the economy would not be able to perform at all without foreign labour. Agriculture is one such section, as is catering, among others. This creates a vital knock-on effect that can be felt throughout the economy. The rental market is currently fuelled by mostly foreign tenants... a fact which is also giving rise to serious inflationary concerns.

Supermarkets, too, have grown dependent on immigration thanks to increased consumption levels: we know, for instance, that some manage to survive fierce competition (two or three supermarkets within close distance) because up to 30% of their sales are now reliant on foreign migrant consumption.

But whilst this need for labour is undeniable, given the current pace of economic activity, it is equally important that some sort of social cohesion is maintained between foreign workers and the Maltese population.

This influx of migrants, both unskilled and skilled, non-EU and EU, poses severe challenges that can be felt across a broad spectrum of concerns. Infrastructure, for example. There are environmental and logistical problems connected to rapid population growth: basic services such as garbage collection, sewage and – most important of all – water provision are placed under strain; traffic problems are compounded; there is the impact of intensified tourism.

Malta has so far been successful in attracting foreign labour for niche sections... but it is a ‘success’ when viewed from an economic angle. How ‘successful’ have we been in planning for the added pressures such an expansionist economic policy may incur?

There are also unplanned social consequences. The demand for high-rise office buildings has fired a starter pistol for a construction boom that – though economically lucrative – is undeniably eroding our quality of life. Apart from the self-evident inconveniences of noise and dust, the development overdrive is eating into precious open space. Coupled with an increasing population, this can lead to urban claustrophobia.

Not all of this is related to the issue of foreign workers, naturally; but are we mindful of the long-term implications of servicing this financial need?

We must also question whether ‘building this railroad’ takes into consideration the rights and welfare of the people we import to build it. Unfortunately it seems that Malta does not do enough to encourage foreign workers to become part of Maltese society: partly through our uninspired welcome of foreign workers, and partly because we only ever treat them as valuable insofar as they render us a paid service (or if they are tourists.)

This view overlooks the long-term prospect altogether. Can Malta afford to just consider itself as a pod for long-term foreign workers, without ever trying to forge some sort of connection with them, and them with us?

Surely this connection must be cultural as well. There should be some form of mediation, or social cohesion, based on a shared understanding of ‘Malteseness’. Other countries (such as Germany, for instance) insist on mandatory courses in social acclimatisation. Perhaps a voluntary invitation to such courses, about living in Malta and with the Maltese, could be an option.

Ultimately, it is a given that the Maltese economy needs more foreign workers. But we must also beware of the sharp edge of this kind of engineered migration, which is currently only informed by the profit-mindedness of an ‘economy first’ approach.

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