‘In the name of Labour’ | Randolph De Battista

The Labour Party has recently come in for some scathing criticism, over having ‘abandoned its Socialist roots’. But its CEO RANDOLPH DE BATTISTA insists that the PL remains the only true ‘voice of the worker’, in spite of everything 

The Labour Party CEO Randolph De Battista
The Labour Party CEO Randolph De Battista

In his Labour Day speech, Prime Minister Abela repeatedly affirmed the PL’s credentials as the only real ‘worker’s party’ in Malta. Yet former leader Alfred Sant had earlier pointed out: “We must not forget the foreign and Maltese workers on a miserable pay. It is a truth that our economy is dependent on low wages.” Do you yourself feel that Labour has ‘forgotten’ an entire category of worker, in Malta: i.e., the (mostly foreign) contingent which is ‘underpaid, and over-exploited’?

If I’m not mistaken, in his speech the Prime Minister actually referred to the ‘ALL the workers of Malta’; and only later alluded to ‘the workers of Malta and Gozo’. So he didn’t ‘forget’ about those workers; they were included in his speech...

Fair enough: but apart from that token mention, what is the Labour government actually DOING to address the conditions those workers find themselves in?

Let’s start with this. When we undertake reforms concerning employment –about the licensing of building contractors, for instance (which is very relevant, because many foreign workers are employed in the construction sector); or even in the ongoing consultation process, about reforming the OHSA)... in all those cases, the reforms we are talking about will impact ALL Malta’s workers: including foreigners.

And I specifically mention the Occupational Health and Safety Authority, because I recently got to know – from a Syrian friend of mine, who is one of the local community leaders – that there are meetings currently under way, between the OHSA and the Syrian community, specifically about improving the conditions of work in these sectors.

And I’m happy to see that this consultation is taking place, because I also believe it is one of the ways we can assist in the integration process. This type of public dialogue is, in fact, one of the ways we can educate on the subject of ‘best practices’; and so on... 

But this ‘public consultation’ is between the Syrian community, and the OHSA. What I’m asking you, however, is whether the Labour Party itself is doing anything about the situation. For instance: how do you respond to criticism that the Labour government’s economic model is itself based on ‘cheap labour’?

I wouldn’t call it ‘cheap labour’, no. Let’s take a step back, and compare today’s economic performance with that of pre-2013. Before, we had a situation where many businesses and work places were shutting down, leaving thousands of workers jobless. Why? Because of a certain ‘something’ that all the rest of Europe is now talking about; but which has meanwhile been forgotten, here in Malta. 

Energy poverty...

I assume you’re referring to Labour’s promises of cheaper energy before the 2013 election, right?

Yes. And to give you an idea of the sort of difference it made: look at what’s happening in other European countries, right now. As you know, there are many Maltese people who live and work in Brussels, nowadays; some of whom earn rather decent salaries, even by [Belgian] standards. Today, however, those salaries are no longer availing them: because their energy bills have more than tripled, over the last few months. And you’ll be amazed, at the impact this has had on their quality of life. 

Now: Malta was in a comparable situation, before 2013. But from then on – because the Labour government reduced the cost of electricity; among various other policies aimed at raising the local standard of living - the economy started to grow...

... and so, too, did the population. Wasn’t it also one of Labour’s policies, to ‘grow the economy, by growing the population’?

Yes; and we faced (and still face) a lot of criticism, to the effect that this was some kind of ‘bubble’, that was soon going to ‘burst’. But the reality, is that this economic model continued to be sustained, over the year: by the government, yes; but primarily, I would say, by the workers of Malta and Gozo. Because our economic success is ultimately down to the hard work of the people.

I’m not so sure how much of a ‘success’ it really is, though. Wouldn’t you agree that our rapid population expansion has also given rise to a whole new class of underpaid, over-exploited workers (hence, ‘cheap labour’)?

My answer to that, is the same as whenever Far Right movements - or the Nationalist Party; as was the case with Bernard Grech’s speech last week – complain that ‘there are too many foreigners in Malta’. 

Sorry, but... what do these people want, at the end of the day? That the Maltese economy grinds to a halt? That it starts to stagnate again, and slide backwards? Or that we continue assisting families, and businesses, to keep the economic wheel turning? 

Now: our answer is that we continue growing our economy, whilst also improving the quality of life of the people (ALL the people) of Malta and Gozo. And this has led to a situation where a large number of businesses are now telling us – and I’m surprised that Bernard Grech hasn’t already heard this; seeing as he is paying to so many visits to Maltese businesses, these days – that ‘they can’t find enough workers, to meet their needs’.

So the question, at this stage, should not be: ‘do we want to continue growing, economically... or do we want to start shrinking instead?’ Because God forbid we were to start sliding backwards, today (with everything else that is going on right now in Europe, and the rest of the world...)

What should the question be, then?

‘What sort of economic growth do we want’? ‘Which are the sectors we should be incentivising’? This is why I was pleased to see that the government is placing so much emphasis on areas such as ‘digitalisation’; ‘environmental projects’; ‘the ‘blue economy’, and so on... 

But there is another question I would ask. ‘What sort of people should we be attracting’? You described them as ‘cheap labour’, for instance... but many of those foreigners are not being employed only in the lowest-paid segments of the job market. They include professionals, such as architects; engineers, technicians, and so on... 

OK, but the problems associated with ‘cheap labour’ concern the low-paid workers; not the high-salaried professionals. Isn’t there some truth, for instance, to the argument that many foreign workers are willing to accept lower salaries, than their Maltese counterparts? And that this has ripple effects, across the country’s entire wage-structure?   

Not really, no. Let me put it this way: wherever there is ‘abuse’, or ‘exploitation’... that is something we obviously have to address. And I am one of those people [within the PL] who has always spoken out about this issue. Because this, to me, is what ‘having Socialist principles’ is all about: as a Socialist, I can never accept a situation where a worker – any worker – is treated any differently from others: simply because he or she is ‘a foreigner’.  

This is, in fact, how the Labour Party’s statute defines those principles: that we are a ‘progressive party, that works for social justice’; that we must strive to ensure that there is work for everybody; and above all, that our ‘measure of societal progress’, as a nation, should be based on the quality of life of those at the very bottom of the economy ladder...

Well, that was the whole point of my question. By that yardstick, the Labour Party doesn’t measure up very well at all, does it?

Come on, you’re exaggerating. Have we reached the aims of our party statute, yet? No, clearly we haven’t... But there can be no denying the progress that has been achieved; and that we’ve made great advances, on both on the social and front, since 2013. This is a why, a few weeks ago, I was pleased to note that a report, issued by the National Statistics Office, actually found that the rate of ’material poverty’, in Malta, has gone down...

Really? So how do you explain the sudden appearance of so many people - mostly Maltese, from my own personal experience - now openly begging in the streets?

Look: I’m not saying that there aren’t people who are still ‘slipping through the social safety net’, right now. Of course, there are...

But that NSO report I mentioned earlier, actually found that – despite the fact that the population has grown so much, over the same time period – the number of people defined as ‘materially poor’, today (i.e., who can’t afford a car, for instance; or to go on holiday every so often) has gone down. And drastically, too...

Now: I am satisfied with that? No, of course I’m not.... especially when the same report also indicates that there is a percentage of the population who can’t materially afford a E700 shopping bill, for instance...

SO yes, we certainly need to work a lot harder. But it’s significant, wouldn’t you say, that the population has increased so much... and yet, at the same time, the rate of poverty has also gone down?

Well: there are different ways to interpret statistics (and also, different ways to define ‘poverty’.) But let’s move onto the inflation issue. The government constantly claims that it has succeeded in ‘controlling inflation’, by subsidising energy bills. But while those subsidies have cushioned us from energy price-hikes: they do nothing to control the spiralling costs of basic, everyday necessities (like food, for instance). So what is the Labour government doing, from a policy point of view, to address the sky-rocketing prices in supermarkets?

First of all: I can assure you that we buy exactly the same products, as everyone else... so we have a pretty clear idea of what sort of prices people out there are paying. 

All the more so, recently: because now that Cyrus is abroad from Monday to Thursday... it falls to me actually to go out and do the shopping, myself! So where, before, I used to just rely on Cyrus’ judgment – telling him ‘get this, or get that’ – now, I’m the one who has to actually check the prices, and go through the shopping bill...

But I disagree with you completely, that the energy subsidies only ‘cushion the population from energy price-hikes’. Earlier, for example, you mentioned that there are ‘beggars in the street’... but can you imagine how many MORE there would be – and what the economic situation would be like, in general - if the government were to stop assisting families, and businesses, by subsiding their energy-bills? As – until just last week – the Opposition leader seems to keep suggesting that we do? Always asking us: ‘But how long are these subsidies going to last? When are you going to remove them...?’

What I say to that, however, is: the price we would have to pay for stopping those subsidies, would be far, FAR greater, than the cost of the actual subsidies themselves....

But that’s only one small part, of how this government is trying to limit the impact of inflation. It has also introduced a number of other measures, and policies, that have to be looked at comprehensively. 

It is true, for instance, that we are experiencing a wave of inflation – as a result of both the Covid pandemic; and subsequently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine – but it is also true that a Maltese pensioner, today, has a lot more support, in the form of benefits and assistance, compared with any time previously (including, when there was no ‘inflation wave’, at all...)

Not to mention all those workers who now enjoy ‘in-work’ benefits: which, thanks to a reform piloted recently by Social Policy Minister Michael Farrugia, are now conferred automatically (where before, they had to be individually applied for; with the result that most workers probably didn’t even know they were eligible...)

All these measures – including the tax refunds, by the way; and I could mention many others – have increased the number of people being ‘caught’, as it were, by the social safety-net (by around 26,000 families, in the case of in-work benefits alone)... so while there may be a lot more we could be doing, to soften the impact of inflation; you can’t really say the Labour government is doing ‘nothing at all’, can you?

One last question: recently, a number of PL officials (including Gzira mayor Conrad Borg Manche) have, in one way or another, ‘accused Labour of betraying its Socialist principles’. How do you respond to that, as party CEO?

Everyone who militates in the Labour Party, is bound by the same principles that are enshrined in the party statute (which I quoted, above). Those are the principles that guide us. So when people like Conrad Borg Manche – who was elected mayor of Gzira on the Labour Party ticket, at the end of the day - fights for the best interests of the residents of his locality... they will be conducting that fight, ‘in the name of the Labour Party’. 

Sorry to interrupt, but: as I recall, Borg Manche actually fought his battle AGAINST the Labour Party (whose President, Ramona Attard, was representing the Lands Authority in court)...

Look: I won’t go into the issue of ‘who lawyers represent’, in their professional careers... for the same reason that I don’t bother questioning the fact that [PN deputy leader] Joe Giglio also happens to be a lawyer, who ‘represents criminals in court’. 

But as far as I am concerned: as a Gzira mayor representing the Labour Party, it was actually Conrad Borg Manche’s DUTY, according to our party statute, to speak out on behalf of the residents of his locality, in the way he did.  And if I were a mayor myself, in the same sort of position – I would have done exactly the same thing. Because that, ultimately, is what ‘Socialist principles’ are all about: being a voice for the weak, and the downtrodden.

God forbid, then, that anyone within the party should ‘hold his actions against him’; and I can extend that to other Labour mayors, and officials, who are also fighting on behalf of the residents in their own localities, and elsewhere.

Now: are there differences of opinion, regarding how we should be enacting those principles, in practice? Yes, of course there are; and this is why our door always has to remain open to further discussion