GWU president says minimum wage must rise

One-third of people in poverty are currently employed – Anti-Poverty Forum.

Victor Carachi: minimum wage not enough to cope with present-day consumer demands
Victor Carachi: minimum wage not enough to cope with present-day consumer demands

General Workers Union president Victor Carachi has said there was an “urgent need” to increase the national minimum wage, saying the present wage made it impossible to cope with today’s consumers demands.

“It is a fact that the minimum wage in place today is simply not enough,” Carachi said in his address to the Anti-Poverty Forum Malta’s conference on in-work poverty. “Clearly, this needs to be re-addressed and implemented in a gradual manner.”

The Anti-Poverty Forum Malta (APF) is made up of 13 organisations forming part of the European Anti-Poverty Network, which includes Caritas Malta, the Millennium Chapel Foundation, Discern and the Richmond Foundation.

Carachi admitted that precarious work was not the only factor that contributed to in-work poverty, arguing that there was a need to work towards higher national standards on jobs that pay lower wages, and make Malta better equipped to compete with the rest of Europe.

“The GWU was instrumental in placing precarious work high on the national political agenda,” Carachi said, in part blaming the increase of energy tariffs and fuel prices as a reason for poverty levels in Malta. “These market fluctuations were not sensitive to the country’s economic standards. And the Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) was not adjusted as it should have been.”

Describing precarious employment as “jobs with undignified and indecent conditions”, Carachi said that the publication of a new, national employment policy aimed at ‘making work pay’ was a “step in the right direction”.

“On top of that, we need a holistic education where subjects such as Maltese and English are learnt well and at a young age. It is true that jobs are being created but many of them, such as those in the ICT and i-gaming sectors, are being taken up by foreigners.”

On his part, Union Haddiema Maghqudin (UHM) secretary-general Josef Vella said that there were varying levels of poverty, and not simply situations were money is lacking. “We often associate poverty, rather simplistically, with money or the lack of it. A lack of education, or a lack of values, is arguably a worse case of poverty.”

Vella said it was the job of unions and government to help people find employment but also ensure this did not mean they were worse off financially. “Being forever unemployed is simply not acceptable,” he said. “We need to not only help people find jobs but finds jobs with quality.”

“We have an obligation to work, when people in other countries are actually fighting for this right. Everyone knows there are people who abuse of social benefits. This is simply unacceptable.”

Vella said unions could play a vital role in the prevention of precarious jobs. “This kind of precarious employment started when non-unionised employees accepted certain conditions from employers who were not associated with any union either. This is where unions can come in.”

Vella said there was no easy solution to tackle poverty nationwide, but said the mismatch of jobseekers to employment was an area that had to be tackled.

Sociologist Prof. Mario Vassallo, on his part, said that earning anything less than 60% of the national average wage placed anyone “at risk of poverty”.

He said that whilst Malta’s average of the working poor (5.2%) compared positively with the European Union’s (9.1%), it was still very present. “Poverty does exist in Malta, even for persons who are in employment. Its existence is certainly no fairy tale.”

Speaking at the conclusion of the four-and-a-half conference, the Minister for Education and Employment Evarist Bartolo said that it was as imperative to safe-guard a good educational foundation, as well as to ensure jobs of quality.

Citing figures which showed that 44% of youngsters aged 16 to 24 were neither in education nor in any form of employment, the minister hinted that the compulsory school age might need to be raised from 16 to 18. However, Bartolo expressed doubts as to how people could be encouraged to stay in school until they turn 18, if it was already proving difficult to keep them at school until the age of 16.

Clyde Puli, Opposition spokesperson on the family and social solidarity, said that the principal challenge remained for the country to create more jobs and of a higher quality.

“Work is not only a means by which individuals can reach their full potential,” he said. “But, of course, it serves to benefit the whole of society as contributions would be larger.”

Puli said that in order for Malta to reach EU 2020 targets, Malta would need to focus on education measures, as well as creating jobs.  “We need to consistently bring up a population of workers,” he said. “But employment certainly cannot be accepted if it means that vulnerable workers are being exploited.”

On his part, the Minister for Education and Employment, Evarist Bartolo said that there was need for a reform in the education mindset of the country. “There is a clear link between education, employment and poverty,” he said. “We need to diversify our education.”

“It is pointless to speak about how many different talents this country can produce, if we are only going to promote the academic route,” he said. “Of course, we need to continue increasing the national literacy levels but also encourage those students who are good in the arts or sports.”

“We need to strive to find a balance between inclusion and diversity,” he said. “We need to teach our younger generations about the value of independence, and not being reliant on anyone.”

Bartolo said that government’s ‘top-up’ to the minimum wage earners’ salary - a measure introduced as part of the new Employment Policy - should help to ease some of the pressure on the working poor. “However, there is still much to do,” he concluded.