Media campaign to curb undeclared work, Malta
Mixed media campaigns can be an effective tool to raise awareness and generate reports from the public regarding the incidence of undeclared work. The Law Compliance Unit of the Employment and Training Corporation (ETC) in Malta launched a public information campaign on undeclared work in 2006, which received a large response. ETC found that 1,271 people were claiming unemployment benefits while also working informally.
The Employment and Training Corporation (ETC) is Malta’s Public Employment Services Organisation. Among other things, ETC has a Law Compliance Unit (LCU) to discourage undeclared work. More specifically, the LCU tries to identify jobseekers who are receiving unemployment benefits and registering as being available for work while simultaneously working in the informal economy. Those found to be doing so are struck from the unemployment register and are no longer able to receive unemployment benefits. In 2006, ETC’s Inspectorate Unit launched a public information campaign on undeclared work.
The main aim of the initiative was to raise awareness about undeclared work and to encourage the general public to report abuses of the law in this regard through a free telephone service or hotline. Indirectly, the campaign also acted as a deterrent to persons working in the informal economy.
The free telephone service was widely advertised in the media in order to generate reports from the public regarding cases of undeclared work. Billboards were also set up in several places around Malta to advertise this service. Throughout the campaign, officials from the LCU participated in several radio programmes to discuss the issue of undeclared work with the listeners and to encourage them to take action.
Evaluation and outcome
Achievement of objectives
A tracer study was carried out some time after the information campaign in order to determine the employment status of 1,271 people who had been found to be infringing the law. These persons had been receiving unemployment benefits while working informally at the same time. The tracer study aimed to find out whether they had regularised their position and joined the formal economy. It revealed that, out of the total, 57% (726 persons) had since declared their employment while 39% (495) were still unemployed but were not actually registering for work with ETC. This meant that they were not receiving unemployment benefits but were still possibly doing undeclared work. A further 4% (50 persons) of the group who had been detected in an irregular employment situation eventually returned to the ETC register, with the possibility of receiving unemployment benefits; however, their real employment status remained unknown.
Obstacles and problems
Following this media campaign, the LCU received numerous reports from the public, some of which turned out to be false. Since the unit had limited resources, it was difficult to cope with the influx of reports. This highlighted the need for a bigger law enforcement unit to be able to become more proactive in the area of undeclared work.
The LCU also encountered problems due to its limited powers in disciplining persons found to be working in the informal economy, especially on construction sites and other outdoor work. For example, members of the unit were authorised to go on sites to check cases of undeclared work but they did not have the authority to detain workers. This meant that irregular workers could escape from the scene and members of the LCU could not do anything about it, as police authority would be needed to detain them.
The information campaign lasted for three months. However, to be truly successful, a campaign has to be sustained and repeated over a much longer period of time. In fact, when the money for the project ran out, the reports of legal violations in respect of undeclared work also decreased. This suggests that a prolonged and multi-faceted campaign on undeclared work would be more effective. It is also important to inform the general public about how undeclared work will negatively affect them and how they can help to prevent it by reporting abuses of the law in this regard. The initiative must also address those operating in the informal economy by highlighting the disadvantages and penalties that they can incur if they do not formalise their work.
Since campaign budgets are often limited, it is important to identify the most effective medium to use in order to maximise benefits. Pre-campaign research can be useful in order to determine which media work best with the target audience, while post-campaign research could evaluate the effectiveness of the programme.
The annual report of the LCU for October 2006 to September 2007 reveals that 33% of the infringements were reported through the use of the telephone hotline. The rest were uncovered through routine checks (28%), investigations (30%), internal referrals (15%) and joint inspections with other entities (10%); more than one source was possible. These results show that, when well informed, the general public becomes more active in reporting cases of undeclared work.
Media campaigns can be an effective way of educating the general public about undeclared work and encouraging them to do something about it. However, such measures need to be prolonged and have adequate budgets to sustain them. Moreover, it is important to have well-staffed units to deal with the influx of reports resulting from the campaign. The personnel also need to have the necessary authority and expertise to follow the cases through, even up to court case level. A frequently communicated free telephone number is effective to remind the general public that they can report cases of undeclared work.
While the campaign was a good initiative to encourage people to report abuses of labour law, incentives to declare work as part of the formal economy may prove to be more effective. Discovering and eradicating breaches of the law continues to be a challenge when the incentives to regularise work do not pay. The issue of making work pay – that is, by offering an appropriate tax and social security regime – is an important factor in combating undeclared work, and a media campaign will have limited effects if this crucial aspect is neglected.
Tony Muscat, Law Compliance Unit of the Employment and Training Corporation
Employment and Training Corporation Law Compliance Unit, Annual Report October 2006–September 2007 (unpublished).
Anna Borg, Centre for Labour Studies