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Avoiding empty promises

Economy Minister Chris Cardona has fallen into the trap of making an empty promise, reassuring the 200 workers that will be laid off from Actavis that the government “guaranteed” that none of them would spend a single day on the jobless register.

It is an extraordinary statement for a minister to make, especially when the statement included a proviso that this did not mean the workers would be taken in by the government.

Both parts of the statement deserve comment. Start with the second part: that a minister even needs to clarify that the government would not be taking the workers on to their own books. This government has managed to swell the public sector by almost 3,000 employees since the election, which is perhaps eclipsed by 22,000 more private sector jobs, so that the percentage of the public sector workforce of the total has dropped, from 26.9 per cent to 24.8 per cent. But all the arguments that these were needed to bring education and health levels up to scratch ring hollow, with dozens of unjustifiable appointments undermining the hundreds that were justified.

The numbers of unemployed are the result of both the new jobs being created that siphon people off the register, and the ones being driven off it by schemes to prevent the status quo of benefits becoming the default option.

The problem has always been expectations – actually fulfilled or not – that government would be the employer of last resort, whether when textile industries shed almost a thousand workers overnight, to when the Drydocks shed thousands through early retirement schemes. There is still the perception that Air Malta workers will be ‘taken care of’ if the worst came to the worst.

The first part of Dr Cardona’s statement was his reassurance that not one person would spend a day on the unemployment register. This ridiculous claim was preceded by the announcement that a task force had been set up to find alternative employment, and that the government agency had crunched some numbers and found 120 vacancies. So far, so good. He should have stopped there. That is exactly what you would expect: that in an economy that is bursting at the seams, other companies would snap up experienced workers, filling vacancies that they were having trouble filling. And this is precisely what JobsPlus is there for, to guide the 200 as regards to openings.

There is a good chance that many of the people being laid off by Actavis will find work but not all of them will and not all of them will move straight from one job to another the very day they walk out of the door at Ħal Far. There are 50 operators, 50 lab analysts and others in IT and human resources. Saying that pharmaceutical companies need staff is trite: the list of vacancies would cover dozens of different skills, not all of which would match those of the Actavis ones.

Why, then, did the minister feel the need to make such an empty promise? It would be far more beneficial to look carefully at this sector, which was spawned by the 2003 Bolar exemption on generics and which needs to constantly reinvent itself.

This government is riding on a feel-good factor at the moment. But it is crucial that any manufacturing closure is carefully analysed to ensure that Malta still has a competitive advantage as, if not, other companies will follow in Actavis’ steps. After years adding pharmaceutical courses to our educational system to feed insatiable demand, we may find ourselves with workers whose skills are no longer required all from the stroke of a pen made somewhere on the other side of the world, Life Sciences Park notwithstanding.

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