Malta’s official number of registered unemployed persons has gone down to under 5,000. The country’s unemployment rate, at a relatively low 5.1 per cent, is surpassed only by Germany, at 4.7 per cent, and Malta is a very good performer in youth unemployment rates. Comparatively, unemployment rates in southern European neighbours Greece and Spain hover around the 25 per cent mark.

On the other hand, Malta’s employment rate is relatively low, with about 66 per cent of people aged between 20 and 64 having a job. Malta is aiming to reach a 70 per cent target by 2020, thus moving closer to the European average.

The main political parties in Malta are interpreting these figures in different ways.

Labour is flaunting the relatively positive figures and highlighting the government’s respective policies, schemes and incentives.

The Nationalist Party, on the other hand, is emphasising the fact that the government has itself provided a considerable amount of new jobs and that many new openings in the private sector are being filled by non-Maltese nationals on low wages.

Employment and Education Minister Evarist Bartolo concurred with the fact that non-Maltese workers, especially EU citizens, do take up a substantial number of new jobs. He also rightly said that, at times, certain Maltese workers do not have the kind of skills demanded by the labour market.

However, it is also true that one finds many workers – both Maltese and foreign - in precarious and/or low-paying jobs. Some may argue that foreign workers are depressing wages due to increased competition from a larger labour force but I prefer to look at things differently.

First of all, foreign workers are contributing to Maltese society in various ways, ranging from immediate consumption of goods and services in Malta to increased productivity which, among other contributions, is important for the long-term sustainability of the island’s pension system.

Second, and from a social justice perspective, the exploitation of workers – both Maltese and foreign – is having negative effects on the quality of life of such persons and their families and it is high time that such an issue is tackled.

In the Budget for 2016, Labour government should consider measures that deal with precariousness and low wages

The Labour government has a mandate to tackle precarious employment and, prior to the 2013 general election, all political leaders and social partners had signed the Jobs+ social pact, as proposed by the UĦM, which emphasised active labour policy measures as well as dignified jobs.

Various active policy measures have been introduced but low wages and/or job insecurity keep featuring in various types of employment, at various skill levels, and, especially, where there is no unionisation. Jobs in this regard cover sectors such as waste collection, construction, care work, retail and hospitality.

Given that Budget 2016 is on our doorstep, the Labour government should consider measures that deal with precariousness and low wages, thus making work pay and complementing measures such as increased access to childcare and vocational training. I augur that, in the run-up to the Budget, Labour’s closest political ally, the General Workers’ Union, will be as vocal on these issues as it was before the 2013 general election.

The other main argument raised in the current jobs debate, namely public sector employment, is also multi-faceted. The increase of 5,500 people in the public sector (including the replacement of 3,000 retired civil servants) surely raises eyebrows, particularly given the pressure on public expenditure funded by taxpayers’ money.

This rather high figure also gives weight to criticisms of Labour’s politics of patronage based on partisan, rather than productive, employment.

But, on the other hand, one should also take account of the expansion of certain public services which are characterised by higher demand in sectors such as health, education and care work. These, however, should be measured also in terms of the working conditions, cost effectiveness and service delivery.

In turn, these are related to quality of life considerations. Consequently, is Malta’s public sector doing a good job in the sectors under its responsibility? Surely, Malta is a high flier in areas such as life expectancy and safety within the community. However, on the other hand, one cannot say the same in other areas, ranging from traffic management, cleanliness, air quality control and environmental protection, which, incidentally, create jobs and make for social well-being.

Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.

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