Harry Vassallo writes on Foreign doctors (Times Aug 20) - 12/9/2004

Do unto others
Harry Vassallo

It appears that one of the proposals in the Labour Party document on economic recovery takes into account the influx of immigrant workers to restore the balance in pension contributions. In other words as the demographic bulge of the baby boomers comes of pension age, immigrant labour will make up the shortfall between retired and working populations.

Yes. Maybe. It was not a scenario described out loud a few months ago when xenophobic utterances were grist to the anti-EU mill. Ironically it was not mentioned by the other side either. The PN was put completely on the defensive about the frightening invading hordes and could not dream of projecting them as a solution to the pensions problem which it was not politically correct to mention prior to an election.

What bothers me is not the two-party gymnastics which has our rivals painting one another into a corner all the time but the consequences of this nonsense. Because it suited the Labour Party to stoke up fears about invasion by immigrant workers and to combine it with predictions of massive job losses in joining the EU, we have given space to unbridled racism and xenophobia. It will be very hard to undo the damage.

What we do have in place is a system of exploitation which we do not want to look at. While some illegal immigrants are locked up for months and years, others are employed in the building industry wholesale. Are they unionised? What are their working conditions? Are they cheap labour for Malta right off the books?

The MLP document is the first admission that we need guest workers. In this case the pension problem is cited as the target but we will also need workers in a growing economy. It will also give us considerable problems unless we work seriously to face up to reality. How well do we accept foreigners as long term, perhaps permanent guests?

In the official version of things the Maltese are known for their hospitality. In reality the strain of too many tourists for too long has begun to jar. Some Maltese workers in constant contact with tourists have lost whatever sense of hospitality they may have had. There are too many faces, too many who are simply an opportunity to make a lira. Bus drivers catch a lot of flak about this and some may deserve it but they are far from being the only ones who are known to let their frayed nerves show.

The matter has come to such a pass that the Malta Tourism Authority carries out exercises to educate us in being hospitable to tourists. It seems clear that there have been some serious failings. This is with people who come here to spend their money with us and whom we all recognise to be a major economic support for the country.

How about non-tourist foreigners? A country that hosts 1.3 million tourists a year is in a state of panic about a few hundred illegal immigrants. Anybody would imagine that the country is sinking under their weight. Once those who apply for refugee status are allowed to support themselves through work they could ease the financial burden on the taxpayer and begin the process of supporting pensioners as envisaged by the MLP document.

The half tolerated system of illegality which has held sway in recent years has allowed an anti-system to take hold. There are industries and businesses that have become adept at using such labour illegally. It could be termed a new slave trade if such workers are not on the books, not covered by welfare benefits, labour safety regulations or any of the other trappings of modern industrial civilisation. To top it all the blackmarket means that some employers get a windfall and pay peanuts for slave labour. Maltese workers cannot compete for starvation rates and cannot be induced to work for little more than their unemployment benefits. They too have become adept at making the anti-system work and round off the benefits they receive with any odd jobs they can find.

And it is not only private industry that cheats like mad. The government has employed dozens of foreign doctors for decades. In the paint-you-into-a-corner mythology of the two-party system it was held that these were imported at astronomic wages under the MLP government in 1977 and have since faded from view. In fact they remain a mainstay of the government hospital service 17 years after the PN took office. They have become a permanent feature.

In their case exploitation has a different face. Engaged on definite time contracts they can be easily dismissed once their contracts run out. They have no hope of promotion to consultant rank even if they have served us for 20 years and hold every qualification of ability and seniority. We have Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Serbs, Ukrainians and Bulgarians who have formed their own union but are not part of the MAM, which is the union of Maltese doctors employed under different conditions. The foreigners are not allowed to practise outside the hospital grounds. Beyond the hospital gates the human body changes completely or they lose their professional competence. Those few who have married Maltese or become naturalised Maltese are required to sit their medical examinations once more even if they have been practising as specialists for years in Malta.

When they are cheated of their travel leave or other conditions of employment there is no major outcry. It is implied that if they don't like being cheated they can always leave. They have to be very polite to their Maltese superiors who only a few months before were their understudies. If they complain, their contract might not be renewed. Those of them who have reached retiring age have discovered to their surprise that their terms of engagement did not include pension contributions and are simply dismissed to face old age as best they can in their home countries. For years they were not told what the situation was.

For some the worst has happened. Their country has joined the EU and Malta appears to be moving east for its medical recruitment. We can probably look forward to a more cosmopolitan mixture at Mater Dei hospital with Czechs and Poles being replaced by Bulgarians and Ukrainians. When Bulgaria joins we will have Georgians and Tajikis. It appears that the Maltese government is shifting out of its new pension obligations to citizens of fellow EU member states. Perhaps there is more. Perhaps these people are entitled to be treated decently in other ways also under EU law. You know, the way people should be treated.

It is all a question of attitude. Many of us owe our lives to these people and would be shocked to learn that they are not respected as they deserve. Not necessarily all of us and certainly not all of us together as represented by the government. Are we capable of dealing fairly with non-Maltese fellow workers? Our challenge is not in dealing with an overwhelming invasion but in being able to put away the Maltese/non-Maltese distinction and treating everybody as equal.

The story about the pensions of foreign doctors should be a major lesson. Those Maltese pensioners who feel cheated because part of their foreign service pension is snatched by the Maltese government should be shocked by the tale. What if the foreign governments they worked for had cheated them in this way? They would not have even a remnant of a pension to complain about. Will we be doing the same with migrant workers in future? Will we take their welfare contributions and not pay them a pension when it becomes due? Are we planning to solve our pension problem by mugging the world's poor?

When I moved house I engaged a Maltese friend to see to the whitewashing. He subcontracted to a Syrian who employed a series of workmen from all over North Africa and the Middle East. None of them stayed long enough for me to learn their names. As the days went by I discovered that he replaced his men regularly and did not pay them, simply tricking them until pay day and replacing them regardless of the fact that he had his share of the advance I had paid. It appears that they were in no position to lodge an official complaint. I could have throttled him when I found out what was going on. Had I employed illegal workers? And used them as slaves? Does our government run similar scams? Does it bother us if it does? How well will we deal with a future in which we will depend on guest workers? Will we treat them better or worse than we hope our kith and kin were treated when they too had to emigrate to find work?

Dr Vassallo is Chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika - The Green Party

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