Tackling the issue of vulnerable workers

A recent study examined the issue of vulnerable workers in the tourism, cleaning and language school sectors in Malta. The research analysed the pay and conditions of workers in these sectors. The study showed that the International Labour Organization definition of a ‘vulnerable worker’ did not always apply in Malta. They could not always be classed as ‘own account’ or ‘family workers’, instead their vulnerability stemmed from poor working conditions and lower pay.

About the study

An EU-funded study in Malta has looked at the issue of vulnerable workers, focusing on three sectors – tourism, cleaning and language schools. The work was commissioned by the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality (NCPE) and was part of a broader research project called Unlocking the female potential. The report (3.54Mb PDF) was published in 2012.

The study’s aims were to:

  • establish the meaning of vulnerable worker in the Maltese context;
  • assess the grades and conditions that make jobs within these three key industries vulnerable;
  • propose recommendations to reduce vulnerability.

The study used a mix of methods and was based on a survey with 602 male and female respondents. It also included:

  • eight focus groups with self-employed or contract workers from the tourism, cleaning and language school sectors;
  • 20 in-depth interviews with key stakeholders representing civil society, employers, unions and government;
  • 19 interviews with business people.

Defining ‘vulnerable’

The International Labour Organization (ILO) definition of ‘vulnerable employment’ is typically tied to ‘family workers’ and ‘own account workers’. The study in Malta showed that in the local context, employees who were considered to be vulnerable were not usually tied to family workers. When it came to ‘own account workers’, the study showed that 5% of respondents said they had been forced to take on a ‘self-employed’ status, while 1% said they had done so by choice (NCPE, 2012, pp. 23–25).

In a Maltese context a ‘vulnerable worker’ was defined as someone:

...who is not given (at least) the basic working conditions he/she is entitled to (as stipulated by Maltese law) by his/her employer and by the worker who is ‘forced’ (not by choice) by his/her employer to take on a ‘self-employed status.

(NCPE, 2012, p. 23)

It also includes workers who are:

  • not employed formally;
  • paid less than the official minimum wage rates;
  • not granted, or paid for, holidays and sick leave;
  • not given statutory bonuses and cost-of-living increases;
  • not paid overtime rates;
  • employed on a short definite contract (one year or less);
  • asked to work irregular hours;
  • employed on a casual basis.

Foreign workers without the necessary work permits, workers whose employers do not pay a share of national insurance contributions, and workers who do not pay their own national insurance contributions were also considered to be vulnerable (NCPE, 2012, p. 23).

Profile of vulnerable workers

More than 50% of the vulnerable workers held a secondary level of educational attainment, although those employed in language schools had a higher level of education. Just over half (56%) of vulnerable workers in the tourism and language school sectors were aged between 15 and 29 years. However, the majority of those operating in the cleaning sector were aged 40 and over and were largely women.

Overall, just over half (52%) of all respondents were employed formally and 30% were employed informally. In the language school sector, only 9% of vulnerable workers were not formally engaged; this rose to 34% in the cleaning sector and to 33% in the tourism sector.

The largest cohort of workers (43%) indicated that they were employed on a full-time basis, 27% were engaged on a regular part-time basis, 16% were seasonal workers, 7% were casual workers, 4% worked flexible hours and 2% worked on a reduced hours basis. Around 40% of the vulnerable workers had been with the same employer for between one and three years.

Working conditions and pay

While 16% of vulnerable workers felt that they were treated badly by their employers, 47% suggested they were treated neither well nor badly, and 36% thought they were being treated well or very well. Around 45% of respondents said they were not entitled to sick leave; the number of women not entitled to sick leave was higher.

While 24% of men received the government bonus, it was only given to 16% of women. The government bonus is a mandatory quarterly payment made by the employer to the employee, regardless of industry or organisation type. The bonus is paid in addition to the monthly wage in Malta.

Union representation was low and only14% of respondents indicated unions that existed in the organisation they worked for.

The majority of vulnerable workers (69%) in all three sectors said that they were paid on an hourly basis and 14% said their rates were below the minimum set by law. Differences were noted between the pay of female and male employees in all sectors. Foreign workers were paid the same wages as Maltese workers according to 40% of respondents, with 35% suggesting foreign workers were paid less.


Despite clear employment regulations in Malta this study shows that employers are breaking the law. Respondents called for more enforcement to curb the abuse by public authorities. It was also suggested that workers should be made aware of their rights and of the long-term benefits of formal employment.

Among other things the report suggests the setting up of a special commission on the issue of vulnerable employees. Action has already been taken by government to monitor the work conditions of vulnerable workers in the health sector (MT1106019I), while other measures were reported to address the issue of vulnerable workers in the cleaning services (MT1108049Q). A legal notice (LN44 2012) was issued by the Department of Industrial and Employment Relations in 2012 to address the problem of involuntary self-employment.


NCPE (National Commission for the Promotion of Equality) (2012), ‘Entrepreneurs and vulnerable workers in Malta’, in Unlocking the female potential (3.54Mb PDF), NCPE, Blata, Malta, pp. 64–120.

Anna Borg, Centre for Labour Studies

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