Coronavirus fallout: the need to protect all jobs

Government has announced its financial package which it described as being a €1.8 billion stimulus package. What is in it for a zero-hours contract worker, the casual worker, the freelance tradesman, the small-scale businessman? Nothing at all. Hence notwithstanding its merits, Government’s package is not a suitable package.

Zero-hour contract workers, the casual worker, the freelance tradesmen and the small-scale businessmen are the first casualties in each and every crisis. It is in the assessment of their plight that we can arrive at a conclusion on the suitability or otherwise of this and any other Covid19 recovery package.

We all applaud initiatives to ensure that the economy and its operators can stand back on their feet not just when this crisis is over, but also along the long road to recovery. But, what purpose is there in pumping the nation’s resources to recover an economy which is not capable of respecting the most vulnerable ones amongst us?

Government’s Covid19 package proposals do not seek to bind economic operators making use of the different opportunities in the stimulus package to protect their labour force. Redundancies have already started. Casual workers and zero-hour contract workers are the first casualties. Others will soon follow.

Additional measures are called for in Government’s Covid19 package.

Assistance given to economic operators should only go to those which have suffered a drastic reduction in their income when compared to last year. Government’s package is predominantly focused on assistance in providing guarantees for bank loans as well as in facilitating and ensuring liquidity. While these are important measures, in this crisis, aid focused directed towards wages of workers is essential. Any direct assistance to economic operators should be linked to their duty of protecting jobs. No job protection should equate to no aid.

Greens are concerned about several freelance tradesman, small scale businessmen as well as casual labour and workers on zero-hours contracts. They are bearing the brunt of the very sharp decrease in work opportunities: they are the first victims of Covid19. Aid to these categories should be a guaranteed income scheme for the coming months, throughout the duration of the crisis. These are the categories which are the most vulnerable and which nobody is talking about.

The lease contracts for tenants should be automatically renewed until the crisis is overcome. There should be introduced a special protection from eviction throughout the Coronavirus crisis. There is also a need for a greater commitment by the government to offer adequate and decent housing to the most vulnerable in particular during this time of crisis.

Greens consider that the crisis’ impacts on employment is showing the structural defects the country has in the social field. Malta is not the only country to have to face this problem. It is important that like various other countries, notably Sweden, Norway, and the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands, guaranteed income schemes referred to as Universal Basic Income and Guaranteed Minimum Income are discussed in depth in Malta too. It would be wise to start considering such schemes for the future as they could offer a long-term solution.

It is time for level-headedness. Minister Silvio Schembri’s outburst in Parliament earlier this week was uncalled for and damaging, even though he eventually apologised. It is never the time to threaten with expulsion those who have contributed so much to our country and economy. When the crisis is eventually over it will be those whom the Hon Minister threatened with expulsion who will once more plug the gap. Even now, the Hon Minister should take a look at the health service and consider whether it would be possible to operate without the participation of non-Maltese medics and paramedical staff who are performing miracles through their professional service hand-in-hand with their Maltese colleagues.

We do remember that around 12 months ago then Prime Minister Joseph Muscat equated non-Maltese participation in the local labour force with refuse collectors. Though he too eventually apologised, his prejudice unfortunately lingers on in those he left behind in Robert Abela’s Cabinet.

Carmel Cacopardo
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 22 March 2020