Foreign workers: scapegoats for environmental degradation in Malta

Shifting responsibility for the dire situation in the construction sector onto foreign workers could be an easy trick for developers. After all, the foreign workers are the ones carrying out the works and can thus easily be accused of not abiding by the rules

As the plunder of the little remaining open spaces on the island engulfed in construction dust continues, it becomes ever more pressing to identify the culprit of this malaise
As the plunder of the little remaining open spaces on the island engulfed in construction dust continues, it becomes ever more pressing to identify the culprit of this malaise

“We’re shocked at how they treat certain people”, Head of Developers Association Sandro Chetcuti once said in an interview referring to foreign contractors. “Their values are not like ours. […] It’s scary! God forbid we end up embracing that type of culture…! Our members prefer working with Maltese workers than with foreign ones, we treat our workers as though they’re family.”

As the plunder of the little remaining open spaces on the island engulfed in construction dust continues, it becomes ever more pressing to identify the culprit of this malaise. During the protest “against developers’ dictatorship” and the protest march for the environment, a group of civil society organisations and NGOs came together to challenge the developers’ lobby; however, MDA seems prepared to meet this indictment head-on – by shifting the blame on foreign workers and contractors.

‘Cheap labour’ and ecological degradation

It is a fact that the majority of workers employed on building sites are non-Maltese. Construction is one of the main industries where migrants and refugees – treated as a source of cheap labour and handsome profit by contractors and developers – find employment. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat himself acknowledged and justified this state of affairs by stating that he would prefer “those helping workers in the sun to be foreign.''

Apart from being a health hazard and a vehicle of environmental degradation, the frenzied construction is often blamed for making Malta look like a “third world country” and, according to the Head of MDA, this has everything to do with the presence of construction workers from “third world countries”. He is not alone in this perception. Ironically, the lack of health and safety enforcement on building sites attracts public exasperation primarily since it harms the country’s image in the eyes of tourists and potential investors, and not because of the risk it poses to workers’ lives. “Because of these migrants Malta is getting a bad name,'' read a comment under a social media post criticising low construction standards – a post which featured a photo of an African worker plastering a brick wall.

Shifting responsibility for the dire situation in the construction sector onto foreign workers could be an easy trick for developers. After all, the foreign workers are the ones carrying out the works and can thus easily be accused of not abiding by the rules, while the MDA can pose as a disciplined player – when, obviously, working conditions are set by employers and political regulators, not the individual workers themselves.

Less obvious yet also widespread is a second association of migrant workers with another anti-ecological aspect – dirt and disorder. In his infamous claim (for which he later apologised) “I do not want the Maltese to be picking up rubbish from the streets”, the Prime Minister clearly referred to African workers, who themselves are often labelled as garbage (żibel). Occupied in garbage collection and frequently housed in unsanitary conditions, African workers are often looked upon with disgust and disdain – almost as a form of visual pollution – the opposites of white clean-up activists who are heralded as environmental heroes.

Thus, either as a nuisance exposing the lack of health, safety and environmental enforcement, a form of ‘visual pollution’ from a racist viewpoint, or, most importantly, a source of cheap labour for the ravaging construction industry, foreign workers appear implicated in the ongoing ecological decline on the islands. Indeed, those are false premises. Migrants’ bad living conditions and the low pay are both means of making profit from them, whereas a lack of health and safety enforcement helps in making such exploitation even more profitable.

Until recently, anti-foreigner sentiment signified panic for a supposedly crumbling national identity, culture and Catholic values. In response to it, the government encouraged the electorate to tolerate the presence of foreign workers for practical reasons – as mandatory servants to Malta’s economic growth machine. However, as more eNGOs and concerned citizens are (rightly) criticising the rationale behind unsustainable economic growth, it also raises a question on the most efficient strategy for halting the rampant construction. It could be tempting to link the latter with the supply of underpaid foreign workers.

The potential implications of reasoning along the lines of ‘influx of cheap labour ruins the environment’ are grave. If we are to protect the environment, then clamping down on the number of foreign workers could be legitimised as a way to slow down the building frenzy. Thus, by attempting to curb over-building, green campaigning might unwillingly give the xenophobic sentiment a moral ground it previously lacked. This kind of argument is likely to appeal to broad sections of the Maltese population: resentment towards foreigners would no longer be a shamefully racist act, but an expression of concern for the environment. The surge of xenophobia and greenwashed nationalism would then be unstoppable.

The ‘solution’, therefore, appears to be at hand: expulsion of migrants and foreign workers would not only preserve the supposedly homogeneous Maltese culture, but also the environment. We must keep in mind that such a race to the bottom catalysed by resentment and racism is a plausible scenario because it is the path of least resistance. Blaming the most vulnerable members of society who, on top of being underpaid, lack political representation and voting rights is just too easy.

Although well-meaning and certainly necessary, anti-developers campaigning might indirectly stir nationalistic and reactionary sentiments when it is framed in such a way. Moreover, it could force NGOs and civil society organisations into a strategic deadlock with no easy way out.

Protests for environment and marches in solidarity with migrants are supported by the same crowd whose relation to the developers’ lobby varies depending on the context: while being a definite adversary of green campaigning on the one hand, developers could be an ally of pro-migrant advocates as employers and benefactors of migrant labour on the other. This contradiction could undermine the arguments of human rights activists since they can be accused of backing the influx of ‘cheap labour’, so detrimental to the environment.

Way forward: targeting developers’ profits

So whom can we identify as responsible for the ecological deterioration of this archipelago? The migrant workers? No, it’s still the developers and the economic model that encourages over-building as a source of quick profit.

To stir clear from empowering xenophobic arguments, green campaigners should not limit their criticism to developers’ faulty morals and lack of enforcement in the industry, since the perpetrators are prepared to shift the blame elsewhere. We must attack the source of their power: profits. Tremendous sums churned out by the construction industry are enabled by low wages and soaring property prices, not the availability of foreign workers per se.

Money cannot lay idle. Abetted by low labour costs, profits made from property sales and rent are reinvested in more development. Higher wages and regulating the property market could be a way to break from this vicious cycle: higher labour costs would threaten developers’ gargantuan profits while rent regulation could disincentivise building more properties for short-term lets. Finally, this would slow down the rate of construction on the islands and allow us to breath.

Seemingly unrelated to the environment, the demands for rent regulation and a higher minimum wage could be the most effective green measures. Contracts, paid leave and sick leave must also become obligatory – they will empower the workers while chipping away at developers’ power and profits. Also, this could be an opportunity for new alliances between environmental, social justice NGOs and trade unions (the latter would need to ensure that all workers are unionised).

We must keep in mind, however, that weekend protests and polite campaigning are unlikely to deliver results. For as long as our demands are harmless, they will remain ignored. It is only when the protests will result in significant losses of profit, our concerns stand a chance to be heard.

Unlike protesting outside of working hours which poses no threat to the balance of power, a general strike would paralyse an economic sector for a few days and certainly send a stronger message. In order to succeed, these demands would require trade unions to abandon partisan loyalty and affiliation with big business and stand by the workers’ – indiscriminatory of their nationality – and environmental cause. In this way, the health and safety oversight and low wages could be addressed together with environmental destruction.

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