As we rush headlong into 2024, it is worth wondering how much of the last year, characterised by conflict and rising prices but also a better-than-expected recovery from the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, will be carried forward into January. Some issues can be safely relegated to the past, others must be carried forward, and other challenges may yet emerge.
As the secretary general of Malta’s largest trade union, the General Workers Union, Josef Bugeja is well-positioned to share his insight with BusinessNow.mt on some of his main concerns for the coming year, identifying potential solutions along the way.
Abuse of workers
Mr Bugeja admits that abuse on migrant and Maltese workers remains a major concern, with the rapid growth in the workforce making it difficult for authorities to monitor the situation effectively while enforcing employment rules and regulations.
“The enactment of new legislation will definitely help, but it is difficult to eradicate abuse in a workforce that now exceeds 300,000,” he says, adding that the union’s pre-election proposal to automatically enroll every worker in a trade union of their choice is “the only solution”, since it empowers workers to identify and report abusive situations themselves, rather than wait and hope that an official might run across the abuse during an inspection.
Expressing concerns of a wage-price spiral as an unprecedented increase in the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) sends salary costs shooting upwards, Mr Bugeja says that price stabilisation policies are needed to achieve a steady and predictable rate of inflation or deflation, fostering economic stability and sustainable growth.
“While the Government is to be complimented in no small measure for subsidising the price of water, electricity, fuel and grain, which have certainly contributed to controlling inflation and maintaining our competitive advantage over our main trading partners, external factors are still pushing inflation up. Therefore, one has to acknowledge that purchasing power, especially of those in the vulnerable sector, has been severely negatively impacted.
“We acknowledge the free market policy, but we are positive that certain measures can be implemented by the Government or central bank to control and manage fluctuations in the general price level of goods and services.”
One way of stabilising the price of food in the medium term, the GWU proposes, is through the introduction of a scheme whereby importers of foodstuffs are given the opportunity to apply for a soft loan.
“The soft loan is to be financed by the Malta Development Bank and the interest rate subsidised through the National Development and Social Fund,” explains Mr Bugeja. “This will give importers the opportunity to buy in bulk, capping and stabilising prices for a year.”
Skills and human resources
With many employers complaining that they cannot find employees to fill current and future vacancies, and digitalisation, automation and artificial intelligence also likely to have an increasing impact on employment growth, education is taking centre stage as a key priority in the short to medium term.
“Malta needs to address coaching, monitoring, training, apprenticeships, up-skilling, re-skilling, and lifelong learning,” says Mr Bugeja. “As the economy continues to grow and create new jobs in innovative sectors, human development is a must to fill these quality jobs.”
He argues that synergies between formal and informal education institutions, industry, employers and trade unions “is imperative”.
Equally important for the GWU is the introduction of a national vocational education strategy, while adult learning and continuous personal development “must become part of our culture.”
“Tax evasion is an unacceptable betrayal of societal responsibility,” asserts the GWU secretary general, describing it as a “deplorable act” that “enriches the few while burdening the many.”
Given the role of taxation in supporting Malta’s wide range of social services, Mr Bugeja believes that those evading them should be “held accountable for undermining public services and social welfare,” arguing that tackling tax evasion head-on “safeguards economic equality, fosters trust in governance, and supports national investment in vital infrastructures and programmes.”
Lauding the move to amalgamate the customs, tax and VAT departments under one roof, he is hopeful that the shared data provide a clearer picture of individuals’ wealth and lifestyle, which can be further analysed through the use of AI trained to identify tax evaders.
Looking ahead, the country “must close loopholes, issue penalties and promote transparency,” with the understanding that “a rigorous enforcement of law is essential to collect what the state is owed.”
The GWU already voiced its concern, during an MCESD meeting with the European Commission, on the potential social and economic impact of the EU’s Emissions Trading System (ETS) on European ports.
“While we are in agreement with the EU’s ambitious climate goals, including a 55 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, the extension of ETS to the maritime sector raised serious apprehensions,” says Mr Bugeja.
“The GWU has consistently warned of the potential negative consequences of this regulation on the Maltese and other European ports, particularly in the ro-pax sector and container transshipment traffic.”
The concern is that the ETS, by introducing new charges for ships docking at European ports, could risk cargo diversion and the abandonment of port activities, rendering the rule ineffective environmentally and leading to job losses.
The problem is likely to go beyond the maritime sector, too, with Mr Bugeja warning that the measure could potentially increase the cost of raw materials in the manufacturing industry, as well as delay their arrival.
Turning finally to an issue gaining increasing recognition as an important factor in employment relations, Mr Bugeja urges the Government to focus more on mental health.
“All of us have times when life gets on top of us – sometimes it is work-related, sometimes it’s our health, our relationships, or private circumstances. It is important that employers take care of the wellbeing of all employees by addressing mental health at work for those who are facing difficult times or are at risk.”
The introduction of mental health first aid training could be a good step forward in equipping colleagues with the skills and confidence to help, with Mr Bugeja pointing to the “strong evidence” that workplaces with high levels of mental wellbeing are more productive.
“When we enjoy good mental health, we have a sense of purpose and direction, the energy to do the things we want to do, and the ability to deal with the challenges that happen in our lives.”
Long term strategy
Asked for his prediction on what 2024 holds, Mr Bugeja expresses his belief that it will be year of continuing growth, in line with projections issued by the Central Bank and the European Commission.
However, he underlines the need for Malta to create a vision for the future and a strategic plan to help it get there over the next 10 to 15 years.
“The main objective is to give a sense of direction of where the country is heading, and how it is going to get there,” he says, adding that such a plan “should instill a culture of long-term planning, which is seriously lacking in our country.”
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