Joseph Muscat last week lashed out at the “exploitation” of migrant workers. But who is really exploiting immigrants, and to what end? RAPHAEL VASSALLO on the dangerous implications of Labour’s xenophobic gamble
In a sense it should come as no surprise that it had to be Joseph Muscat – Malta’s young and “progressive” Socialist leader – to exploit immigration as a core electoral issue ahead of Saturday’s vote.
Let’s face it: Labour has a long pedigree of falling back on the “Us Against Them” motif in its historic battles with the PN.
In Mintoff’s time, “foreigners” were often identified as “spies” and “agents provocateurs”, brought over by the PN to stir up unrest, only to be arrested and detained via the Foreign Interference Act. More recently still, Alfred Sant employed much the same rhetoric in his 10-year campaign against EU membership: when “the foreigner” inevitably became a threat to Malta’s sovereignty.
Today, it seems to be “Us Against Them” all over again, with Maltese citizens representing “Us”, and for “Them”, a shadowy, vague and little-understood phenomenon known as klandestini... so easy to portray as sinister agents of political destabilisation, spreaders of disease, closet Muslim terrorists and countless other unlikely threats.
But where this sort of rhetoric is traditionally the staple of the extreme right, in Malta the battlecry has predictably been adopted by the moderate left. Immigrants, Muscat intoned at a mass meeting last Sunday, pose a direct threat to Maltese employment.
It is “unacceptable”, he added, that the working taxpayer is in danger of losing his job because the system is not creating a fair playing field. Evidently, he concluded, the country is not being governed with the seriousness it deserves.
More than “turn immigration into a political football” – as Lawrence Gonzi immediately countered the following day – Muscat took a veritable free-kick into an open goal.
Government, Muscat thundered, had been “weak” in its recent altercation with Italy; it betrayed the national interest by signing the Immigration Pact; and above all, it had failed, and was still failing, in its foremost responsibility as administrators of the common weal... to protect Maltese jobs from migrant workers.
In brief, all the standard fare one would expect at a public rally organised by the BNP, Lega Nord or Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front Nationale in France... but with a significant difference.
For leaving aside the obvious appeal to a growing segment of xenophobic voters, the underlying political target of Muscat’s outburst last Sunday remains Gonzi himself.
Just as the PN won the March 8 election by building up its leader’s persona to Big Brother proportions – with “GonziPN” offering us all “peace of mind” on massive billboards across the country – Labour now hinges its entire electoral strategy on deflating that selfsame image, with a view to undermining public confidence in the PM’s ‘safe pair of hands”
And what has Gonzi promised us all, if not a bonanza of jobs? In fact the PN’s EP bid is rooted exclusively in the “more jobs for you” slogan, with billboards reminding us of the number of jobs “created” or somehow “saved” by the Gonzi administration. So by insinuating that these same jobs are actually going to “them” instead of “us”, Muscat has done more than merely debunk the underlying theme of the PN’s campaign: he also invoked a deep-seated sense of irrational resentment against foreigners – traditionally so central to the Labour Party’s intrinsic DNA – to reinforce the image of Gonzi as a man who has lost control of the entire country.
Are migrants a threat?
As electoral ploys go, this one is as straightforward as it promises to be effective. But at what price this war with Lawrence Gonzi?
First and foremost, Muscat may wish to inform himself a little better on the subject of immigration. Thanks to NSO statistics, we now know the precise number of irregular immigrants currently in legal employment: it stands at 895, nearly all employed in the stonecutting, construction and garbage collecting industries.
Besides, what Muscat omitted to mention last Sunday is that, in each and every case where a job has been awarded to an irregular migrant, the Employment and Training Corporation is obliged to advertise the same post on its website, and give automatic priority to any Maltese applicant.
This changes the argument completely, from a case where (in Muscat’s words) migrants are “taking Maltese jobs”, to one where Malta has been left with no option but to depend on these migrants to do all those unpleasant (but vital) tasks which we otherwise be forced to do ourselves.
If, on the other hand, Muscat had illegal employment in mind, then it could be argued that he has correctly identified a potential threat, but unaccountably went on to draw all the wrong conclusions.
In a sense, Muscat did indeed make a woolly allusion to this reality, with his oblique reference to “exploitation” of workers. Here he is on more solid ground... for the threat of exploitation certainly exists, and it does indeed undermine the security of Maltese jobs in more ways than just one.
Cheap labour of the kind provided by illegally-employed migrant workers allows employers to undercut Maltese salaries, and cut corners on essential matters such as health and safety at the workplace.
Muscat may also have had this in mind when he referred to the creation of a “non-level playing field” in the employment sector. But if this is the case, he has seriously misdirected his criticism – for the party in government cannot realistically be held accountable each time a migrant worker is illegally employed, any more than it can be blamed for every hold-up, theft or sale of illicit drugs in the country.
And this, at the end of the day, is arguably the greatest price to pay for the Labour Party’s forays into right-wing xenophobia: only it will not be Labour, but the entire country to foot the bill.
For while the underlying concerns raised by Muscat are arguably well-founded, they have been so severely misrepresented that the only likely outcome (apart from a PL win next weekend) is for irregular migrants to be made scapegoats for all our economic and social woes... when in actual fact, public anger would be far more accurately directed at unscrupulous employers, to whom the “klandestini” are just an excuse to continue exacting more work for less pay, in less favourable conditions.
If the government is to be criticised in connection with immigration, it should be for the shocking negligence with which it allowed ghettoes to mushroom unchecked; for its detention policy which it clearly lacks the resources to properly implement; and for the quasi-national sense of ill-feeling it has fostered towards migrants in general, and which may yet spill over into serious violence...
Viewed from this perspective; would a little restraint be too much to ask from a “Socialist” and “progressive” young leader like Joseph Muscat?