Sunday, 30 September 2012

The Minimum Wage: To Increase It Or Not?

Over the last few days, a lot has been said and written about the issue of increasing the minimum wage in Malta. As an employee with various debts chained to my feet, my first reaction would be to give my full support to any initiative aimed at increasing the minimum wage as soon as possible. Yet, upon giving some more thought to the matter, measures that would surely affect the lives of thousands of people cannot be decided on the basis of an individual's whims. 

Whoever knows me well would be acquainted with my political beliefs. To those who do not know me, I am a fervent Socialist. I believe that a society is judged on the basis of how it cares for its weakest members. I believe that hard-working, successful individuals should be helped to contribute their skills to create a better world. Yet, I am against the notion of huge power imbalances in society since these could easily constitute a threat to democracy and to social harmony. I have diverted a little here to make it clear that my position regarding the minimum wage issue is linked to my political beliefs.

If one had to analyse the amount of money that is required in our times to live decently, there appears to be little doubt that anyone earning a minimum wage would have a fairly hard time trying to make ends meet, let alone living decently. As time goes by, the typical person requires more items to enjoy a decent standard of living. Compared to life several decades ago, having a mobile phone and Internet service could be said to be a must-have in the 21st century. Depending on the job one has, a number of things might be necessary to satisfy the company requirements. 

In order to bridge the gap between the amount of money being earned and the amount of money that is necessary to live decently, it is possible to list two options. Increase one's income (by, for instance, increasing the minimum wage) or reduce the price of a number of essential commodities such as electricity, water, and gas. The reduction in price of such commodities could, of course, be carried out by means of State intervention. More specifically, government subsidies could be utilised to ease the burden of the thousands of people who are on the verge of falling into the pit of full-blown poverty. In principle, I would prefer to opt for the second option, especially when we are living in times characterised by a huge economic crisis affecting several countries.

As far as Malta is concerned, many businesses are fairly small (employing less than 30 employees). Furthermore, numerous businesses are family-owned and a handful of non-family members are usually employed to help provide a service or sell certain products. Compared to a number of other nations, Malta cannot boast of having corporations whereby hundreds of thousands of Euros are paid as bonuses on a yearly basis to a group of individuals. There are the factories and the i-gaming firms, but these do not represent anything close to the full picture of the Maltese economy.       

Given the specific characteristics of the Maltese economic landscape, simply increasing the minimum wage could mean the loss of a certain number of jobs. This applies particularly to family-run businesses whereby the families already have to deal with the increase in price of several services or items. If they are forced to choose between their own survival or that of their employees, it is quite likely that they will opt for the former and let their employees go. Do we want to witness a drastic increase in the unemployment rate in our country?

In the case of those companies that are doing well enough to be able to absorb an increase in their expenditure without firing any of their employees, it is plausible to think that the directors would not just sit there and see their income plummet. They would probably want to recover the income lost due to the increased expenditure. And one way of doing that is by increasing the prices of their products or services. They would argue that if people are earning more money, what harm would there be in increasing the prices? Such a situation would probably lead to a vicious cycle whereby the minimum wage would have to be increased very regularly to keep up with the increased prices. In all likelihood, given such a scenario, the country would witness a spectacular rise in inflation. And how would lives become easier if the increases in the minimum wage are matched by inflated prices?  

I would like to conclude with an observation about many of the organisations that are campaigning in favour of an immediate increase in the minimum wage. I have noticed that some of the most vocal organisations demanding an immediate increase have very little contact with local businesses to understand the full impact of an upward adjustment of the minimum wage anytime soon. One specific organisation seems to be making a great deal of noise in order to attract some votes in the next general election. The sad thing is that the representatives of this organisation fail to state that they barely have any funds to run a political party and that they do not have a team of individuals working on a full-time basis to meet both employees as well as business-owners to obtain a more realistic understanding of the many facets relating to the minimum wage issue. Many fancy words might be noticed in their press statements, but no studies of their own are published. No concrete plans are advanced to substantiate their positions. 

It is all too easy to say that one has to either choose to support the workers or the business owners. In the real world in which an economy consists mainly of private companies, any rash measures that ignore the circumstances of the business owners could lead to the loss of countless jobs. And if that happens, how would all the press statements and the nice words be of any help to the unemployed individuals who do not know where the next meal is going to come from?

Thursday, 20 September 2012

The Need for A More Planned Economy

"A university graduate, Liam Gauci, said only two graduates out of 15 from the University of Malta's history course had found jobs, but none related to their field of study. "The government prizes IT students because their jobs are in demand by the industry, by paying them higher stipends. But graduates like myself haven't managed to find jobs except in some secretarial posts.'"

I was not surprised by Mr Liam Gauci's observation quoted above. I was not surprised at all! According to an article that appeared on the maltatoday website, Mr Gauci expressed his concern during one of the recent Labour Party Congress sessions held at Ta' Qali.

One of the saddest things about Mr Gauci's comment is that this situation has been with us for a fairly long time. After four years of very hard work and countless sacrifices, I graduated with an Honours degree in Psychology. Philosophy was my subsidiary area of study. Short of getting a scholarship to further my studies abroad, it was extremely difficult to find a decent job related to my degree. A small number of my university colleagues found jobs working in the HR (Human Resources) industry. Many others ended up working in areas that were almost totally unrelated to their studies.  That was in 2001.

I still clearly remember that after a few months of job-hunting, I was eventually accepted for a government job which did not even require a university degree! Once all taxes were deducted, my monthly salary amounted to approximately € 815.00. It was painful to witness other people who had spent pretty much the same amount of time studying at university finding jobs quite easily and earning more money. Of course, the difference was that they had studied Accounts or Computer Programming. Till this day, it seems that most of the job vacancies in Malta are related to accountancy or IT skills. If you have pursued your childhood dream of studying, say, Archaeology, you might have a very hard time finding a decent job related to your studies!

In view of a situation whereby the time and the effort spent at university are far from being sufficient to guarantee easy access to the job market or to land a decent job that is somewhat linked to one's studies, a number of questions come to mind. First, what is the point of telling people that they are free to study whatever they want to when we are living in a society which clearly discriminates between individuals who study different subjects? Second, how exactly does an individual and society benefit when a person graduates from a course that is largely subsidised by public funds, only to spend a number of months unemployed or working in an area which does not require the skills acquired during the university years? Third, if our government was a truly caring one, wouldn't it take a more active role to ensure that ALL graduates could find decent jobs that could be somewhat linked to their studies? 

Compared to other countries, the Maltese Islands are very small. It baffles me to see that in spite of our size, the present government is still unable to come up with a better strategy to deal with the problems mentioned above. I would say that there is a lack of political will to improve the situation. The Nationalist Party opposes the notion of having a more planned economy. As long as it is in power, it prefers to deliver the following message: "I am not here to guarantee jobs. I am only here to ensure that as the private sector thrives, it is able to comply with local laws and regulations. If you cannot find a decent job because of what you studied, too bad! Just keep trying to find something! I can put up a lot of vacancies all over the ETC offices, but I will not go into the match between those vacancies and the skills you have. If you studied something and are unable to find a related job, try to find someone to support you as you study something new for another two or three or more years! Good luck, mate!" That is pretty much the Nationalist Party's philosophy when it comes to helping university graduates to find good-quality jobs. 

I believe that a Socialist government would be far more caring towards the country's university graduates. After years of hard work and sacrifice, such people deserve to be rewarded with decent jobs which could help them to grow as individuals. Jobs which could also help them to make a bigger contribution to society. For this to happen, the country would need to have a more planned economy. Without such an economy, many more graduates will surely continue struggling to find a decent job linked to their studies following graduation. Is this what we want for our country's graduates? Do we want to continue witnessing a situation whereby some graduates find good jobs fairly easily whilst many others are simply forgotten or deserted?



Wednesday, 19 September 2012


How many times have you heard someone say something and disagreed with the contents of that person's statements? How many times have you nurtured a view that differs from that of an entire group of people? Did you ever express your disagreement? If so, what reaction did you get? Was there a debate that led to the taking of some vote? Was there any negotiation in order to reach a compromise? Or were you considered as "odd", "crazy", "stupid", or "disloyal" when you mentioned your differing beliefs?

Whilst reflecting about the issue of dissent within Maltese society, I almost immediately developed the impression that most people in Malta are not brought up to challenge or question the positions taken by various authority figures. Although Maltese schools are excellent at promoting cut-throat competition as well as the memorising of a staggering amount of details, relatively little attention is devoted to analysis and debate of several phenomena. Such an educational system leads to a situation whereby countless individuals could quote Shakespeare or read a balance sheet, but are then usually totally unwilling to express an opinion that could be regarded as a threat to the preservation of the social and political status quo.

Dissent is probably as old as the human species. I believe that ever since human beings were able to get together to make plans regarding the best way forward for a community, the clash of a number of individual wills must have always existed to a certain degree. Whoever has a knowledge of history will surely be aware of people such as Martin Luther or Giordano Bruno. Such individuals challenged the institutions that they belonged to and Bruno was even killed for doing so. 

As a phenomenon, dissent is probably best understood when analysing the relationship between an individual and the organisation/s he or she belongs to. Throughout life, most people would normally drift in and out of various organisations. These organisations could range from one's family to school, the workplace, a religious group, and even a political party. It is fairly difficult to move ahead in life without being involved in some type of organisation. Fr Mark Montebello, a Maltese Dominican friar as well as one of the country's most prominent philosophers, has analysed the relationship between the individual and the organisation/s he/she belongs to. Indeed, in 2010, Fr Montebello published a booklet entitled The Redemption of Anarchy (Il-Fidwa Tal-Anarkizmu) which sheds a great deal of light on this matter.

As organisations grow, they tend to develop a set of rules. Depending on the organisation's views regarding change, its rules could become extremely rigid. In such situations, the group's members are expected to accept all the rules without showing any hesitation or doubt. The organisation's objectives would normally become associated with certain people who mould the group's identity on the basis of their personal beliefs. Everyone else must simply suppress any differing views and toe the line to avoid being labelled as a "traitor".

It is no secret that whenever one belongs to an organisation, certain benefits or rewards are expected. If, however, the organisation feels threatened, measures could easily be taken to ensure that the person challenging it no longer enjoys the fruits of membership. With reference to Fr Montebello's aforementioned booklet, he wrote that "The individual in Malta and Gozo, especially the one who wants to function within an organisational setting, would still be considered as forming part of the social and political structure as long as he/she does not behave in a way that challenges the supremacy of the values that are held as sacrosanct by the organisations to ensure their preservation. Indeed, till today, the organisations in Malta and Gozo still give more importance to their own welfare than to the individual's well-being. Whoever poses a threat to an organisation's ability to achieve this goal would be pushed out from the organisation and excluded from membership" (pp. 14 - 15).

During last year's divorce referendum campaign, I still clearly remember that when divorce was being discussed within a small Catholic group, any views in favour of divorce were crushed by the conservative group leader in a very dogmatic way. There was no real debate. And it seems that those individuals who held differing views were eventually pushed out of the group.

When it comes to the working world, each company could be perceived as an organisation with its own culture and rules. In those companies where there is very little co-operation or unity among the workers, there is often a great deal of fear to express dissent. Even though many employees would easily grumble or complain about certain work-related practices or issues in hushed tones, the pressure to obey together with the fear of being fired from the company would usually lead to the repression of dissent. Taking another look at Fr Montebello's booklet, he wrote that "In Malta and Gozo you would come across many people who would - in a private setting - talk very openly. But when you invite them to write something in a newspaper, to sit for an interview or to participate in a public discussion to express their views...they refuse to expose themselves due to the fear of exclusion, which could affect them directly or their loved ones" (p. 31).

Turning to Maltese politics, one could also identify some examples of the ways in which dissent was handled. In 1998, when Dom Mintoff voiced his disagreement with many of Dr Alfred Sant's policies, he was called a "traitor". Apart from being accused of treason, Mintoff was also brushed aside by many people within the Labour Party.
During the last few months, Dr Franco Debono was also accused as "mad" and as a "traitor" following his various criticisms of the work of several Nationalist Party Members of Parliament. With reference to a recent article that was published on the maltastar website, Dr Debono summed up the way in which he was being treated as follows: "if you don’t obey the rottweiler comes barking at you. The scheme goes like this: either you obey and shut up or else you have to face the rottweilers. Simple. If you shut up and be quiet we keep you comfortable. If you don’t shut up there are no rights. It’s useless invoking rights. My message was: I am not afraid of the rottweilers. I am invoking rights. I want meritocracy not favours from Gonzi".

To conclude, there is still a lot of work to be done in Malta and Gozo so that more people could learn how to deal with dissent in a healthy way. The educational system must surely devote more time and energy to the teaching of skills that would allow countless individuals to question a number of things in order to build a better society. Organisations should make a genuine effort to become more inclusive and to avoid the rush to crush dissent or to expel any members who have differing viewpoints. If dissent helps to improve the workings of the organisations which make up a society, it is definitely something that should be encouraged more regularly.