The foreign workers phenomenon
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The foreign workers phenomenon

The influx of foreign workers over the last few years helped the economy to grow at a fast rate. It seems the government and the head of State employment agency JobsPlus have no intention to question the possible negative social, economic and environmental effects of increasing dependence on foreign workers.

JobsPlus executive chairman Clyde Caruana argues that foreign workers have become so ingrained into our economic system it would be unreasonable – and perhaps verging on madness – to say we can close our doors to them. While very few have insisted this country should completely bar foreign workers, many continue to wonder what studies have been made to gauge the impact on Maltese society of the influx of foreign workers, which seems to be barely controlled.

Mirroring the attitude of his political masters, Mr Caruana adopts a condescending attitude when addressing people’s concern about the increasing dependence on foreign workers. However, policymakers will do well to study precedents where other small nation states like Malta were faced with a similar situation.

Singapore has for long been considered as an economic model that Malta should emulate. In 2012, the Singapore government introduced strict restrictions on the inflow of foreign workers after a drubbing of the governing People’s Action Party in the general election the year before. The then finance minister introduced a “calibrated reduction” policy in the ratio of foreign workers hired by companies in the manufacturing, construction and services sectors to curb dependence on them.

People have a right to know what the long-term effects of dependence on foreign works will have on their lives. They should not be sold the illusion that their present and future well-being depends on foreign workers, as Mr Caruana argued. The concerns of the Singaporean society are not all that different from those of many Maltese.

The increasing dependence on foreign workers is not sustainable because it will test the limits of space and infrastructure, despite efforts to build more housing and expand the public transport system. Our health and educational systems are already under great stress partly because no proper planning was done prior to the massive influx of foreign workers in the last few years.

There is another important economic reason to question the policy of allowing a massive influx of foreign workers: the easy availability of foreign labour will reduce incentives for companies to upgrade, design better jobs and raise productivity. Malta has the worst EU records in educational achievement and little political will and competence have so far been shown to address this fundamental weakness in our economy.

The continued rapid infusion of foreign workers will also inevitably affect the Maltese character of society. So far, private concern about the negative social effects of foreign workers has not turned into public anger. However, it is a question of time before it will as the negative impact on public services, the environment and the infrastructure become more suffocating. This anger will not be a result of xenophobia but the genuine concern of ordinary people who rightly or wrongly feel they are not getting the kind of services they deserve.

The government must address people’s concerns about the socio-economic effect of the increasing number of foreign workers rather than claim this is an inevitable and irreversible phenomenon.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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