The sustainability of the economic model of every country is not just about achieving gross domestic product growth in the short term. Malta’s economic model suffers from a lack of focus on longer-term issues, including educational excellence, labour market sustainability and the importance of family well-being measures to help workers achieve an adequate work-life balance.

In 2019, the EU Work-Life Balance Directive came into force to improve access to family leave and flexibility arrangements. Malta waited until the end of the time limit to introduce these measures partly because of the economic disruption caused by the pandemic.

The government has now announced some family wellbeing measures that include new benefits for fathers and carers who support vulnerable relatives and more flexible working conditions for parents with young children.

Research in developmental psychology had documented the benefits of parents’ involvement for children starting from before a child is even born and extending into their adulthood.  

The time for a change in the focus on workers’ family well-being was yesterday.

For too long, governments and employers considered labour a commodity that could be treated as any other commodity by adopting the economic principle of supply and demand. Thanks to the EU’s social agenda, member states today must adopt family-friendly measures that should be the cornerstone of sustainable development.

Opponents of more generous family wellbeing measures argue that businesses should get to decide what benefits they offer and people choose what businesses they want to work for.

Unfortunately, only a small proportion of workers have access to benefits offered by larger companies to retain or attract scarce talent. Still, people from all walks of life deserve the right to care for themselves and their families, regardless of their position or pay grade.

The Malta Employers’ Association welcomed the government’s decision “to stick to the minimum entitlements of the Work-Life Balance Directive” but complained that employers will carry the cost of these measures from 2024.

There is still much work to be done to convince employers that Malta’s deteriorating demographics require a cultural change in how policymakers and businesses define their human resources strategies.

Inevitably, a business looking to cut corners will not voluntarily provide a benefit that cuts from its profit line.

The EU directive makes sense for the protection of all workers by introducing mandatory family well-being measures.

It is not reasonable for businesses to expect taxpayers to pay the cost of these measures and to perpetuate the fallacious practice of treating workers as a commodity.

Some argue that prolonged leave could hurt productivity and impact co-workers and customers. Some northern European countries have addressed this issue by using temporary workers.

Other measures are needed to ensure that women are not rushed to return to work due to concerns about career advancement. Employers need to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to maternity leave. Some women may want to spend more time with their children and others may not.

As a country, we need to prioritise flexibility by allowing families to choose what is best for their well-being based on their unique situation.

The introduction of new family well-being measures is just one of the many issues that need to be addressed by policymakers and businesses to make Malta’s economic model sustainable in the long term.

Changing policymakers’ and business leaders’ mindsets on supporting workers’ families will always be the most formidable challenge.

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