Moves to tackle exploitation of migrant workers

Anecdotal evidence in Malta suggests migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, constitute the bulk of the country’s vulnerable workers who are treated unfairly at the workplace. This evidence has been corroborated recently by reports in the Maltese press. The General Workers’ Union, which has been conducting an intensive and sustained campaign against precarious work, has urged the Maltese government to do more to tackle the exploitation of immigrant workers.

Background

Malta has seen an influx of displaced immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East over the past decade, substantially increasing the number of vulnerable workers and some employers are willing to take advantage of their plight.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of abuse of these workers, mainly through poor pay and working conditions. The government has attempted to tackle the problem, but the General Workers’ Union (GWU) says things are not moving fast enough.

Pay differentials revealed

Reports in the Times of Malta on 7 October 2013 revealed how eight immigrants employed by a local contractor were being paid less than Maltese workers. The immigrants had been employed for three years as rubbish sorters by a contractor at a recycling facility.

During the three years the immigrant workers were paid an annual salary of €8,400, while the Maltese employees with the contractor earned €11,300. The work had been subcontracted to the company by WasteServ, the Maltese government’s waste management agency. Once it became aware of the anomaly, WasteServ took steps to rectify matters.

The fact that wage discrimination based on race could take place in a government institution has been condemned by the Secretary General of the GWU, Tony Zarb. He claimed it was a practice which was both widespread and underreported. He said the victims of this kind of exploitation were highly vulnerable workers who were afraid to complain about their treatment.

Lawyer Katrine Camilleri is Assistant Director of the Malta branch of the Jesuit Refugee Service, a migrant advocacy organisation. She has backed Zarb’s view, saying most of the immigrants who complain to her organisation of poor working conditions are employed without a work permit and so feel powerless. She said some even complained that they were not paid at all by their employers.

Exploitation of workers ‘widespread’

The Marsa Open Centre in Malta is a temporary hostel for homeless migrants. A number of immigrants can often be seen in the streets near the centre waiting to be picked up to go to work.

Ahmed Bughri, Director of the centre, has said that asylum seekers having to contend with desperate living conditions will take any job offered, whatever the working conditions.

The Council of Europe’s Commission Against Racism (ECRI) has reported cases of migrants who had been promised pay of €25 a day being given 25 cents instead. ECRI maintains that although measures have been taken to deal with such abuses, the practice of sub-standard pay and work is still widespread, especially in the construction sector.

The GWU has appealed to the government to do more to combat the exploitation of Malta’s immigrant workers. It recommends more unannounced inspections at workplaces – especially in the construction sector – and harsher penalties for infringements of employment law. It says that the ECRI report confirms its view of the prevalence of precarious work.

Ministers pledge to tackle the problem

In response to the ECRI report, a joint press conference was held by the Minister for Education and Employment, Evarist Bartolo, and the Minister for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties, Helena Dalli.

They said they were committed to tackling the abuses highlighted in the report. Following discussions held with immigrants, Mr Bartolo said he was able to announce that the government planned to set up an employment agency within the Open Centre where jobs could be offered to residents in a formal and legal way.

GWU gave its backing to this initiative, observing that it had made a similar proposal earlier in the year in a memorandum sent to the political parties contesting the election held on 9 March 2013. The union’s recommendation then was that a unit should be set up within the Employment and Training Corporation (ETC), Malta’s Public Employment Service, to help these immigrants find jobs.

The Centre for Labour Studies at the University of Malta, in its memorandum to the political parties, suggested the setting up of a temporary work agency specifically to help the integration of irregular immigrants into the Maltese labour market and match employer demands. The centre recommended that it should be registered as a cooperative society ‘so as to enhance its legitimacy as a corporate body that upholds high social objectives’.

Commentary

In the past decade, Malta has become a European port of call for thousands of displaced immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. This influx of immigrants has substantially increased the supply of vulnerable workers who have had to adapt themselves to a depressing and unfortunate situation. Although the government has tried to reduce abuse of their vulnerability by some employers, anecdotal evidence and cases of exploitation reported in the press suggest that more needs to be done.

Saviour Rizzo, Centre for Labour Studies

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