Long way to go for 'cosmopolitan Malta'

A lot of work still remains to be done. Just wishing for a cosmopolitan country is clearly not enough to make it happen successfully

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

The Prime Minister’s dream of seeing a cosmopolitan Malta, where diversity becomes a hallmark, still requires a lot of work.

Our survey on Sunday shows how 41.5% of Maltese report no concerns whatsoever with foreigners who live and work in Malta: leaving more than half the population experiencing some concern about foreigners in Malta.

The concerns are significantly higher when people were asked about asylum seekers. In the latter case only 7.7% said they had no concern. These findings appear to be reinforced by the figure that shows how 90.6% believe Malta ‘cannot take any more foreigners’.

What this shows is a high level of preoccupation with foreigners, even though – at both ends of the spectrum - they have been credited with part of the economic success the country has achieved over the past four years. In a sense, this paradox was inherent even within the Prime Minister’s own economic plan for Malta: by ‘elevating’ the lowest economic bracket, while attracting higher-paying foreign companies to invest locally, the ‘cosmopolitan vision’ for Malta has resulted in an economic dependence on foreign workers at both ends of the scale.

And yet, one of the top concerns with regular foreigners is the fear that foreigners will take the jobs of the Maltese: a concern which tops the list for 20.1% of respondents. It appears to be an irrational fear, at a time of economic prosperity with the number of jobless hitting record lows.

But it appears paradoxical for another reason. These abstract fears seem to extinguish themselves when people are asked whether there is a fear of foreigners in the locality where they live. Three quarters of respondents answered ‘No’ to that question. In fact, the vast majority of Maltese do not speak on a regular basis with foreigners outside the place of work.

Personal experience appears to tell a different story from popular misgivings.

This goes to show that part of Malta’s traditional ‘fear of foreigners’ is grounded in perception or based on the fear of the unknown: probably also fanned by fear-mongering on social media.

Nonetheless, the perception is there, and understanding why it exists may prove a vital component to the fruition of Muscat’s plan. On one level, these concerns may be fuelled by a deeper underlying anxiety about wage stability in Malta. Statistics may belie the view that foreigners are ‘taking Maltese jobs’... but it is harder to dispel the argument that a foreign labour influx helps keep wages in certain sectors depressed.

A low wage that may be sufficient for someone who is in Malta to earn money, and is sharing expenses with other co-nationals, may be problematic for the Maltese who are living here permanently, as well as other foreigners with longer-term plans. And while employment figures have reached record highs, it is an open secret that wages have not increased in step with the economy.

It is all well and good to embrace an inclusive and egalitarian vision, but we cannot ignore the side-effects of the accompanying demographic changes. One such effect is the perception that the bottom end of the labour market has stagnated: relying on cheap labour and precarious conditions which may, in time, have a snowball effect on the rest of the economy.

Meanwhile, there are issues on the high end of the wage equation, too. Despite industry insiders rushing to calm the waters, people are beginning to feel the pinch of sky-rocketing rent prices: driven in the main by an influx of higher-salaried workers who can afford to pay much more than the rental market has ever asked before.

In both cases, people now feel they are being edged out of territories they had previously regarded as their own. Under such circumstances, it is inevitable – albeit unfortunate – that the general population would blame ‘the foreigner’ for pushing prices up and wages down... when what we really should be looking at are the policies and practices that regulate those sectors from above.  

This, in turn, may help to explain the most worrying figure, which concerns the abstract notion of ‘invasion’. The survey found that 10.7%, and a more significant 41.2%, were concerned that regular foreigners and asylum seekers respectively, are ‘invading us’. Beyond the alarmism, the sentiment may also be a reflection of genuine fears that a way of life we have always taken for granted, is now under threat.

Hence the paradox: part of the motivation for the Prime Minister’s vision is, in fact, a generational change that would make Malta a more modern, forward-looking country.

Taken together, these findings portray a complex picture of integration that is still in its embryonic stages. Within this mosaic, pushing for a cosmopolitan Malta will require greater harmony between the resident population and foreigners coming to live and work here. Government needs to be more coherent – and more honest – about its plans for Malta: it needs to admit that migration does play a large part in the country’s economic vision; and above all, it needs to manage the integration aspect better.

A lot of work still remains to be done. Just wishing for a cosmopolitan country is clearly not enough to make it happen successfully.