The true cause of low wages? Hint: it’s not foreign workers

To find out more about the state of solidarity between workers of different ethnicity and their working conditions, Raisa Galea paid a visit to a private company which employs a large number of individuals from all over the world, deployed in many Maltese workplaces

Originally published in the online magazine

Workers, local and foreign, tend to be at the fore of heated public debates yet the media seldom publicises their first-hand experiences, remaining invisible and unrepresented while being broadly discussed by others.

Foreign workers, we are repeatedly told, are “the true cause of Malta’s humiliatingly low wages”. This narrative is then pitted against the other that speculates that Maltese working-class people are particularly susceptible to racism; and such ‘despicable’ beings, by definition, do not deserve better living and working conditions. The associations between a working-class background and xenophobia have become almost proverbial.

Workers from Ghana, Romania, Macedonia and Serbia
Workers from Ghana, Romania, Macedonia and Serbia

On one hand, those who blame low wages on foreigner workers are labelled racists, while those who hold racism as an innate characteristic of the working class are classist or hypocrites... but does moral posturing truly challenge perceptions?

OzoGroup is Malta’s number one private sector employer. Originally established in 1996 as a small cleaning company, the group is today chaired by Mario Muscat and over the past decade grew to comprise 12 companies, each specialising in different sectors of hospitality and service industry. In 2017, it received a European Business Award in the categories ‘National Champions’ and ‘Best Company in Europe’.

The group outsources service personnel to hotels, restaurants and the manufacturing industry. The business is a lucrative one: its corporate headquarters recently moved to Qormi, where the building is partly under construction.

Fabio, one of the managers, is showing me around: “Here, at Ozo, we have workers of many nationalities. These are from Kenya and Italy,” he says as we walk past two male labourers fixing the building’s interior. We pass by the glass doors of the office floors on the spacious administration floor, and Fabio mentions the nationalities of their occupants: Serbian, Maltese, Macedonian, Nigerian... they are the managers’ offices. I point out that my plan was to meet workers and not managers, but Fabio suggests having a word with the managers first.

He introduces me to Tatjana Kavaji, a Serbian woman who heads Ozo’s hospitality department, who has been living in Malta for 22 years, seven of which spent working in the company. Her own work experience at OzoGroup is a positive one: “We have no such definitions like ‘foreigners’ and ‘Maltese’ here. I never felt as a foreigner, but as part of a team and part of a family, from day one”, she says with a smile.

 Doris, Jennifer and Anna, OzoGroup’s cleaning personnel
Doris, Jennifer and Anna, OzoGroup’s cleaning personnel

I ask her in which language the company’s staff usually communicate with at work. Although most of the time Tatjana communicates in English with her director and colleagues, she nevertheless can hold a conversation in Maltese when necessary.

Kavaji proudly tells me that in 2012, the year she joined the group, its service personnel for the hotel industry consisted of 168 women, which seemed like a “huge number” back then. Today, the group employs over 2,000, and Tatjana has over 1,000 people under her supervision, all working in private households or the food and beverage sector.

OzoGroup actively looks for more labourers abroad, where it reaches out to all those seeking employment via recruitment agencies, and obtains work permits for all foreign employees to whom it offers contracts of a minimum duration of one year.

For the past four years, Kavaji went on at least two recruitment trips per year. In January 2019 alone, she enrolled over 100 persons from Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia. In total, OzoGroup employs workers of 37 different nationalities: British, Nepalese, Filipino, Bulgarian, Serbian, Bosnian, Turk, Italian, Romanian, Indian and, of course, Maltese employees, who are but a fraction of the diverse workforce from whose labour the corporation profits.

The team of managers is equally multi-ethnic and includes Maltese, Serbian, Bosnian, Nigerian and Turkish members, just to mention a few.

Brian, a manager from Nigeria, tells me his colleagues all work well with each other. He, personally, has never experienced any ethnically-induced conflicts on the workplace. Brian came to Malta in 2010 to study at the university and was engaged with OzoGroup after graduating in 2015.

He strongly believes that the mainstream media is culpable of portraying migrant workers in a bad light, which consequently leads to a negative perception of them by the general public. “I am a member of a Nigerian community here, in Malta. We often meet the Prime Minister and the President. We don’t have problems,” Brian asserts, adding that many Nigerians are married to Maltese, have children and get on well together.

Brian, Tatjana and George are OzoGroup’s managers
Brian, Tatjana and George are OzoGroup’s managers

A manager of Serbian origin, George, started off in 2013 as a cleaner. Soon enough he moved up the career ladder and was promoted to supervisor. George is now a coordinator of the housekeeping unit overseeing work of around 500 people.

A friendly relationship between the managers transcends the workplace. Despite having little time for socialising outside working hours, coordinators still meet from time to time, Isabelle Farrugia, a general manager who supervises over 400 factory workers, says. On occasions they celebrate birthdays and the winter festive season together.
Wages and working conditions

OzoGroup’s regular employees receive their wage on the 15th of every month. Tatjana Kavaji beams with pride: “At the moment, it is €5.08 – higher than the minimum wage of €4.50!”

I struggle to share Kavaji’s enthusiasm. Indeed, anyone earning as little as €5.08 per hour (or €812.8 a month) – and who doesn’t own property – faces a great challenge when it comes to finding a roof over their head.

“I often hear and read comments stating that Maltese tenants are losing a rental market bidding war to foreign workers” – I ask her – “who are supposedly at an advantage since they can share an apartment with a few others, earn some money and then leave...”

I curiously anticipate her reply. Kavaji boldly shakes her head: “Workers have to find a solution since the prices are too high,” she points out reasonably, though ignoring the critical detail that workers’ low pay is another prime cause of their struggle. She insists that strict regulations are now in place to establish and enforce the maximum number of tenants allowed. Sky-high rents, in her opinion, are a consequence of the gaming companies’ influx as well as the influence of high net worth individuals who keep pouring into Malta from abroad.

Overall, Kavaji sounds like a textbook case of free market advocacy. Had she been a landlord herself, she admits, renting out property for a higher amount would be a natural choice to make.

A phone call interrupts our conversation: “You can choose any girl and she will be working with you for eight hours,” Kavaji commands someone on the other side of the line. “She can work on the moon, in Ozo building or with you, it doesn’t matter. If she refuses, she’s up for a penalty!” Alas, Kavaji does not seem too concerned about the employee’s well-being. Listening to her speak, I cannot but sympathise with the worker who is treated as a mere tool and whose sentiments are completely ignored.

But I am not surprised: to any corporation, employees are a mere resource to profit from.

Bizarrely, Kavaji goes as far as blaming workers for the poor wages they earn. According to her, salaries remain low due to workers’ own desire to engage in undeclared work for a slightly higher pay – and not the employers’ reluctance to pay employees better. She sounds perplexed and exasperated speaking about ‘ungrateful’ individuals waiting at tables irregularly – and uninsured – in Paceville for a clean cash of €5.50-€6.60 per hour. “Isn’t toiling obediently at OzoGroup for the lavish pay of €5.08 plus governmental bonuses good enough?” she genuinely wonders. It does not cross her mind that an hourly pay of €5.08 is tremendously low to begin with.

“If you seem to agree that foreign workers are the real cause of meagre wages, then perhaps Ozo’s foreign employees should be sent away to allow the Maltese earn more,” I tell Kavaji provocatively, barely hiding my contempt. She shakes her head again. Maltese do not want these kind of jobs, she insists. Apparently, most of Maltese youth are simply too spoilt by the government’s generosity and so are not hard-pressed to waitress or wash dishes for peanuts. Maltese waiters are so rare, I learn, that they have become a status symbol for a venue that employs them.

The workers

Having an open conversation with the workers about their experiences, mutual support and working conditions proved to be a tough task.

With Kavaji supervising every attempt at a discussion, the employees clearly hesitated to utter anything but praise for the company.

Doris, Jennifer and Anna work together and appreciate each other’s efforts: “We are friends and every day we eat together,” they say.

Although most of the time they communicate in English, Doris and other Maltese colleagues have taught the Filipinas a few Maltese words.

“For me, everybody is the same,” Doris says as to whether or not she feels comfortable to cooperate with persons from so many different countries.

All of OzoGroup’s personnel are members of the General Workers’ Union. “And what if they decide to strike?” I turn to Kavaji.

Once again, she seems taken aback by my question: “They never wanted to strike! Why would they do that? They earn more than a minimum wage!” To demand higher wages, I say, underlining that strikes are a tried and tested method of lobbying for better working conditions and that unions indeed have an upper hand in collective bargaining.

“Why would they strike? They earn more than a minimum wage!” Kavaji says.

“Obviously, we have a collective agreement with the union,” interjects Wesley Zammit, general manager of OzoMalta. “If we do not abide by its conditions, the union would call for a strike, but I can assure you this would never happen,” he says with a smile. Kavaji nods with satisfaction: “I do not see any signs of a revolution behind the door.”

On my way out, I pass by an international team of construction workers plastering the walls. In their own words, the Romanian, Serbian, Macedonian and Ghanian all work perfectly fine together. “Ghana is the best!” a worker from Romania laughs, teasing his African colleague.  
Low wages? Blame it on employers... and unions!

The case of OzoGroup is a stark example of how elusive a division between a Maltese and a foreigner truly is: both the managerial and the regular employees seem to work well in multi-ethnic teams.

Yet, a division between labourers and managers is profound and undeniable. Although I did not succeed in speaking about matters of mutual support and solidarity with workers, the visit clarified how the private sector employer does indeed treat its workers as mere tools, expecting immense gratitude for the poor, slightly above the minimun, remuneration.

Centuries of capitalism should have taught us that private employers prioritise profit above workers’ well-being. It goes without saying that no employer would raise wages unless they are pressed to. Moreover, employers continuously undermine workers’ solidarity by promoting a select few, thus encouraging competition between them.

The way to secure a better pay is at hand, however. Since all of OzoGroup’s 2,000 employees, Maltese and foreign, are unionised, the General Workers’ Union could oblige the employer to pay higher salaries. It could resort to the tried and tested means of collective bargaining, such as calling for a strike. Undoubtedly, the striking service workers would make a much greater impact on hoteliers’ and restaurateurs’ decision than a polite campaign for a higher minimum wage the union is running on social media.

Clearly, workers, Maltese and foreign, are sacrificing their well-being and quality of life on the altar of Malta’s economic miracle.

Higher wages, the business lobby cautions, would necessarily hammer the economic growth and drive the country into disarray. The role of trade unions, however, is to defend workers’ rights and well-being – and not growth which preys on their efforts.

Unfortunately, trade unions are another culprit of this plight. With their strong affiliation with either Labour or Nationalist Party – which are competing for the affection of tycoons and smaller enterprises alike – both the General Workers’ Union and the UHM seem to be entirely complacent with brazen exploitation, serving the corporate interests way better than defending workers’ rights.

The author is editor of online magazine, and expresses gratitude to the General Workers’ Union for their assistance in gaining access to the company’s premises