Precarity and Malta’s low minimum wage plague island of plenty

On International Workers Day on 1 May, Malta is still faced with problems of low minimum wages and the threats that precarious workers face without unionisation

While being marketed as a side-hustle option promising independence and cash, the employment conditions for couriers can leave much to be desired
While being marketed as a side-hustle option promising independence and cash, the employment conditions for couriers can leave much to be desired

Malta enjoys high levels of economic growth and almost full employment, but the island is witnessing a widening of social inequalities with the richest 20% earning 37% of the total income, and the poorest 40% earning only 22% of the total income.

On 1 May, Moviment Graffitti’s Andre Callus said that decisive state intervention was desperately needed to reverse the widening of inequalities and improve workers’ wages and conditions.

“Increases in the minimum wage could push up all low wages,” Callus said, who called declarations by the Labour government that the minimum wage increased in 2017 as a “blatant lie”.

“The mechanism only provided for meagre wage increases for workers on a minimum wage, only after two years in employment.

“It is essential to bear in mind that a significant increase in the minimum wage is not only important for workers on a minimum wage, but for all workers on low wages. An increase in the minimum wage will automatically push up all low wages,” Callus argued. “This is the reason why a minimum wage increase had been fiercely resisted by employers’ organisations.”

Andre Callus, social equality campaigner for Moviment Graffiti
Andre Callus, social equality campaigner for Moviment Graffiti

As Malta celebrates the international day of workers of 1 May, another concern for the island’s social development is the precarity suffered by foreign, non-unionised workers doing so-called platform jobs.

The General Workers Union secretary-general Josef Bugeja, told MaltaToday that the island’s army of food couriers were a new class of precarious workers.

“I refuse to use such services as I’m aware that the workers’ rights are not safeguarded. The number of accidents they are involved in stem from the fact that they have to reach certain quotas in order to make commission from the deliveries,” Bugeja said.

GWU secretary-general Joseph Bugeja
GWU secretary-general Joseph Bugeja

“We are in 2022 and we still hear of stories in the media where injured workers are left on the side road. This is blood money,” Bugeja said of other concerns about illegal employment of non-protected workers suffering for shortcomings in health and safety by their employers.

Bugeja argued that with unemployment at record lows, no Maltese worker was in competition with foreigners for jobs. “The pressure is currently on wages, as most foreign workers are not unionised and they are paid less than those that are under a collective agreement.”

Bugeja said the country was dependent on foreign labour and the economy would not sustain itself without them. “On the occasion of Labour day, I want to thank all the workers for being the backbone of our society,” Bugeja said.

But Andre Callus also said the rules governing residence permits for third-country nationals had to be revised, since these placed these workers in a situation of total dependency on their employers.

“These rules have led to the exploitation of those workers, who are not in a position to challenge exploitative practices or demand better pay and conditions, due to the power that the employer yields over them,” Callus said.

Bugeja however believes that working conditions for both Maltese and foreign workers could be highly improved through mandatory union membership, a GWU proposal which has been endorsed by the Labour Party.

Bugeja played down criticism against the proposal, saying a lot of workplace abuse would be eradicated if all worker were unionised.

“With this proposal, union membership would be mandatory not just for the employer but also for the employer. Through an affiliation with a trade union, most abuse against workers would be eradicated, as rules and regulations hey enforced,” Bugeja said.

He argues that even issues like the gender pay-gap did not exist where workplaces are unionised. “On the other hand, the gender pay-gap averages 19%, wherever workers are not in a trade union.”

Bugeja played down the idea that it would be impeding on the free choice of the workers, saying the workers would be free to join any union of their choice.

Callus too thinks mandatory unionisation could potentially improve workers’ ability to demand better wages and conditions, as long as it was in conformity with Constitutional provisions.

But he said employers could easily bypass the law by creating “fake” workers’ unions, controlled by bosses, while current unions had their actions limited due to partisan loyalties.

“Currently in the construction sector, businesspersons have unlimited power. This industry need  serious enforcement. Workers’ safety goes beyond the construction industry: the authorities are ignoring the conditions of food couriers, who work very long hours and are being paid per delivery.

“This can only change if institutions radically shift their approach from one that is geared towards accommodating business to one that places workers’ wellbeing as its priority.”