A hard act to follow | Edward Zammit Lewis

Before her nomination to the European Commission, outgoing Equality and European Affairs minister, Helena Dalli, piloted a number of reforms that put Malta on the world civil liberties map. Can her successor EDWARD ZAMMIT LEWIS improve on her record?

Newly-appointed European Affairs and Equality minister Edward Zammit Lewis
Newly-appointed European Affairs and Equality minister Edward Zammit Lewis

Your new ministry’s portfolio is split into two: Equality, and European affairs. Under Helena Dalli, these seemed to be balanced out between a minister who was more associated with the ‘equality’ side… assisted by Aaron Farrugia, who was more focused on Europe. Judging by your press articles, however, you seem to lean more towards the European angle. Does your appointment mean that ‘equality’ is no longer a priority for the government?

I can answer that with a straight ‘No’. In fact, just yesterday I had an intensive meeting with the Prime Minister, where we agreed that they are both on an equal footing. I understand why you think my inclination is towards European affairs… because it’s true: I have a great interest in the subject. But equality is still a government priority. Obviously, I have a hard act to follow, in the sense that Helena Dalli is synonymous with the sector. Any successor would find it very difficult.

But I assure you, I share both her and the Prime Minister’s vision… and I will carry on with the good work, and give it immediate priority. The first item on the agenda is to meet all the stakeholders. I will continue pushing the two bills which are already before Parliament, which will give extensive powers to the new Commission for Equality. We will adopt, as law, the 12 protocols of the Convention of Human Rights, so as to ensure that there will be a government for equality; not just a ministry. Because the government has to implement equality measures in all sectors; we have to promote equality on the place of work, and incorporate equality measures into the design of our infrastructure.

Are we already there? We did a lot since 2013; we are protagonists in this sector, not just at European but also on a global level… and I am determined to keep working in that direction. If we meet again in 2020, I’ll be able to answer you not just with words, but with concrete facts.

Let’s take one concrete example. Gender equality is very high on the government’s agenda – Dalli’s appointment itself attests to that – but Malta still has the largest gender pay gap in the European Union. What are your plans to guarantee the principle of ‘equal pay for equal work’?

This is a problem which has been there for decades now. It is obviously more pronounced in a vibrant economy, where we have managed to create more, and different types of employment. A lot of work has already been done with the social partners… because government cannot enforce a solution without persuading the social partners: including unions, employers’ associations, etc. So, discussions have been taking place; but we need to come up with concrete solutions… we need authorities which act, when action is deemed appropriate…

But the authorities already exist – there’s the NCPE, for instance – and, while Government has so far suggested quotas for Parliament… nothing seems to have been done to address the permanent gender imbalance across the board:

including the private sector. This is now your remit: what do you propose to do about it?

First of all, we need to be aggressive: to introduce more measures similar to the ones we are proposing for parliamentary representation. We cannot just say that ‘women will make it on their own’… we have to take action. But, in the case of the private sector, matters are more complex. Any measures have to be endorsed by the stakeholders. On paper, the legislative framework is already in place. Now, I believe we have to work more on a change in mentality. That will be our priority. As you said, the authorities are already in place; but by September/October, when parliament reconvenes, the two bills we will be discussing will give the NCPE more power. But it’s not just a case of implementing new laws. We have to take a hands-on approach, and see to it that the measures are implemented on the ground. At the same time, however, it is ultimately a question of mentality; and on this point, I also believe that we shouldn’t be too negative about it. The situation is changing at its roots. What remains to be done is to seize the momentum, so that we can truly talk about having a gender neutral, socially just society.

Meanwhile, equality touches on other areas besides gender. Helena Dalli is also on record saying that she believes that migrant communities should be given the right to vote in local elections. Is that something you will be working towards, too?

Yes, of course. The government’s stand on this is clear: foreigners who live in Malta, and are ‘regularised’ – in the sense that they live and work here, pay taxes, and are part of our community… I agree with Helena Dalli that it is a natural progression for these people to be given the same rights as other citizens. Either we believe that that is what our society should be; or we turn to the conservative view – to which, obviously, I don’t subscribe…

You say that ‘government’s stand is clear’… but is it really? There are entire foreign communities living and working here legally – partly as the result of government’s own policy to bring workers from overseas – yet we can all see that there is resistance to, for instance, offering naturalisation programmes. What is actually being done to integrate those communities?

First of all, there is a process whereby foreigners who have been established here for some time can apply for citizenship. But on the whole, yes, there is resistance to the idea of integration. What many might not realise is that these people are needed in our economy; they fill important gaps in the national workforce. I don’t believe the criticism that they are ‘taking work from the Maltese’. That’s not the situation at all. Nor do I agree with Adrian Delia’s call for ‘intelligent migration’. There is no such thing: migrants travel from one region to another when there are gaps in the labour market. But everything has to be legal; as long as we are talking about legal migration, then yes, I agree that we have to work harder to ensure that migrants are given the same rights as other citizens living in Malta. We have to believe that, if we want to be a truly cosmopolitan country…

But isn’t that objective undermined, when the Prime Minister says things like he ‘doesn’t want Maltese citizens to pick up the garbage’?

I followed what the Prime Minister said in that instance. His words were taken totally out of context. The context he was referring to was something that has been happening across the world for the past two centuries. Even us Maltese: we went to Algeria, Tunisia, Gibraltar… even to Australia and Canada… when there were gaps in the labour market. This is a reality that no one can change. It is how people move from one place to another. They look for economic prosperity: they look for jobs and stability. So, what the Prime Minister was saying is that: the Maltese are becoming more refined; families are investing more in human capital; their children are learning more, and they are getting better jobs. It was an affirmation – and I agree entirely – of belief in the Maltese people. I am a social democrat, and I believe in social mobility. I myself am the product of social mobility… so I believe fully in that.

Nonetheless, social mobility also creates inequality issues. If the gaps filled by foreigners concern work that no one else wants to do, they will inevitably be perceived as ‘inferior’. Do you not see this happening in Malta today?

But I don’t agree that it’s just to fill those gaps. There are a lot of foreigners in Malta with very good jobs: in financial services, or remote gaming… where you need specialised personnel, for example, knowledgeable in a Nordic language. These people are very highly paid. Even accountants and auditors are being recruited from overseas. So I don’t subscribe to that view, myself… though I agree with you about the perception being that way. But when you go down to the raw facts, you will find that people are coming to Malta to fill gaps in various sectors: including very highly paid positions...

 

Again, however, this creates social imbalances. Coupled with the liberalisation of the rent market, those highly-paid workers are able to afford much higher premiums than the rest of us are used to. The upshot is that the typical Maltese salaried employee can no longer afford to pay rent… not to mention other inflationary knock-on effects across the board. Do you consider that to be an equality issue, too?

Of course I do. I believe we have to talk about equality in the wider sense of the word: it’s not just about gender or race issues. But the rental market is what it is… though it can be adjusted. I believe in a liberalised rental market, with certain safeguards which respect the rights of an individual to have a decent standard of living… but also the rights of the property owner. This balance is already being created by the government…

How?

We have reformed the rent laws. Is that enough? No, of course not. So in our last budget, we also introduced subsidies of up to €5,000 a year. More housing projects are in the pipeline, to the tune of circa 1,500 housing units for those two to three percent of families – in the widest sense: including single mothers, and people living alone – who cannot afford to rent at market prices. So we are tackling the issue. But I don’t believe we should distort the rental market. It is working well… since 2013, we have managed to create another economic niche. The rental market, today, is no longer just two or three renowned families of landowners. Even people in the middle-income bracket are supplementing their income by renting out a second property. We have to think about those as well. And yes, we have to think about the most vulnerable… though we don’t need to be too tragic about it, either. We are talking about two to three percent who cannot afford a roof over their heads; in some cases, even with subsidies. For those, we have to create social accommodation. But even here, we have to change the prevailing mentality. ‘Social accommodation’ is not a permanent emphytheusis for life – a ‘cens perpetwu’, as we say in Maltese. It’s not that. This may be something that does not make me very popular with our electoral base: but we have to help people to move up the social mobility ladder. You don’t get an ‘apartment for life’; what you get is an apartment from the government, at very minimal rent rates, to help you become a property owner; so that the same social housing can then be offered to people who are even more vulnerable than you. That is the change in mentality we want to work towards…

Onto European affairs now. Last April, you wrote that: “the EU has been unable to solve crucial issues of migration, social inequality, youth unemployment, regional disparities, climate change, fiscal austerity, and many other concerns…’

[Laughing] It’s a very good quote…

Well, I can’t say I disagree. But… in view of the recent changes in EU leadership, do you think that anything will actually be done to address this reality? Take migration, for instance. We have been talking about Europe’s failure to agree on a common migration strategy ever since we joined in 2004…

Let me put this clearly and logically. It was Malta and Italy that pushed migration high onto the European agenda. Up to a couple of years ago, it wasn’t even at the top of the agenda. Migration was seen as something that affected only the southern member states…

It was also something countries felt they had to address on their own. In the recent ‘stand-off’ situations, Malta negotiated agreements bilaterally with other member states… not with the EU at all…

Yes, that is why we need a common European response, not just initiatives by individual countries. But it is also true of those other areas: there is social inequality across the Union; youth unemployment is very high in certain regions. It is for this very reason, that the results of recent European elections have favoured more populism, more extremist parties. So, I feel I can say this very loud and clear: the EU has to be more aggressive in this regard. It has to reach out, and convince people that the experiment carried out 50 years ago, when the three communities were established, was a good experiment. I believe that it was; I believe that Malta benefitted from EU membership. Today, surveys show that the vast majority of Maltese and Gozitans are happy to be EU citizens. But if the EU intends to remain relevant in the years to come, it has to address those issues. To be fair, however, last June the European Council adopted what is known as the ‘Strategic Agenda’, outlining the main principles for the European Union over the next decade: a European Union that is competitive – because Europe, as a bloc, has to compete with countries like China and the USA – but also an EU with more values, and more social justice. Because, although we distinguish between ‘Equality’ and ‘European affairs’, even within my own ministry… they have relevance to each other. Equality is, after all, one of the main pillars of Europe.

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