The new siege of Malta - Revel Barker

There’s a wind of change blowing across Malta that has nothing to do with climate nor (thankfully) even the pollution from rogue exhaust emissions.

Rather, it is an economic, environmental and industrial change and it results as a payback from the nation’s benefits of EU membership. Malta is about to realise that everything, even money that seems to be there for the asking, comes at a price.

Nobody seems to have noticed – yet – that there is a new siege of Malta.

This time the invaders are north and central Europeans. And their ammunition is called uncontrolled freedom of movement.

Even while applying for membership, Malta didn’t care for the idea. It won a concession to delay for seven years the mandatory free-for-all with work permits for foreigners. So we saw it coming, but that barricade has long been flattened.

The only weapon in Malta’s defensive arsenal remains the obsolescent pre-war artillery piece that is its language. This is useful, but it may not last for long; plain common sense and simple economics might overcome even the current requirement for fluency in the official tongue.

Here’s why: tourism is Malta’s biggest industry. Government jobs are the second biggest.

You don’t need to speak Maltese to work in tourism, but of course English is an advantage, and if you have another European language, that’s a bonus.

For government jobs, you need to speak Maltese. And that is the only qualifier that nowadays defends the Maltese from real life. And from real work. You don’t even need to be able to read and write adequately in the national language, but if you can speak it, you can get a job – especially if there’s an election in the offing.

This is what’s happening: in addition to their normal holiday entitlement, the Maltese want 14 national holidays every year, and each of these “days” is usually extended to a long weekend.

Nothing wrong with that. We are blessed with a wonderful climate – the envy of our friends in the north – and presumably we were meant to enjoy it. It doesn’t affect the running of “government” as we currently know it, which has been designed so that the people servicing these holiday islands are on holiday themselves half of the time.

But holidays have a serious effect on the tourism industry.

At the busiest time of the year, hotel and restaurant staff go off to attend their festa and when they come back to work, they discover that their jobs have been taken by Serbs, Croatians, Romanians, Poles or whatever – by people who are no more bothered about whether it is a saint’s day, Republic Day or Independence Day than, in truth, the Maltese are themselves.

Economists sometimes try to impress us with figures for the costs of public holidays and time off, but the likelihood is that they don’t know the half of it.

This year, for example, Independence Day fell on a Thursday. The Maltese finished work earlier than “normal” on Wednesday in order to make the ferry. Then there seemed little point in going back to work for the usual early finish on a Friday.

For government jobs, you need to speak Maltese. And that
is the only qualifier that nowadays defends the Maltese from real life

Foreigners, on the other hand, having no concept of Malta’s Independence Day, were perfectly happy to work on both days. And these new arrivals speak English and probably German and Dutch, maybe French and Spanish, as well as their own language – be they Polish, Romanian, Czech, Slovakian or Serbian.

Linguistically at least, they come better equipped to deal with tourists.

The Maltese may protest that these “immigrants” – EU citizens all (or most) of them – are working for less pay. That may be true, although many of them reportedly earn sufficiently to send money home, with the bonus of having worked for it in the sunshine.

Meanwhile, if it is unaware of it currently, it will eventually dawn even on officialdom that you don’t need the Maltese language for the majority of government and government-related jobs.

Cleaners, porters, painters, caretakers, gardeners, doormen, gatekeepers, tourism guides, labourers, fitters, plasterers, tilers, carpenters, electricians and motor mech-anics… don’t need to be Maltese-speakers.

But only the Maltese are considered for these government and quasi-government jobs. It’s the last defence of the otherwise unemployable.

The Maltese economy is already heavily dependent on foreign company investment and the foreigners they import to work for them. They don’t need Maltese speakers.

Yet while the locals keep asking for, or simply taking, extra days off, the foreigners are working.

Politicians may protest that there are fewer or no jobs for school-leavers, and that the foreigners are “taking our jobs”. But there is a world of difference between wanting a job and wanting to work.

Foreigners – imagine this – are prepared to work after lunchtime, even in summer.

In Ireland, a golden leprechaun poured in so much EU money that house prices doubled – and the cost of labour (and living) increased proportionately. Then the money suddenly stopped. Nobody could afford Irish craftsmen. But skilled Polish workers – freedom of movement, remember? – were still working for the old rate.

Suddenly thousands of Irish builders, carpenters and electricians could find no work.

And yet you couldn’t get a job as a fireman in Ireland unless you spoke Gaelic.

A friend told me that this was in case somebody was at the window of a blazing house and you might not understand what he was shouting.

There’s a moral in there somewhere.

Revel Barker is a semi-retired journalist, an author and publisher and long-time resident of Gozo.

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