Camille Franke’s Blog

Pigs and pigs - Workers’ market – Dinosaurs – Blame the robot - Breaking the limit

Pigs and pigs

Pigs do not have such as good reputation.  We may love the pork, but if we want to describe somebody’s room as a mess we call it a pigsty, even if a pig refuses to defecate where it sleeps and eats if given the chance.  Our regard for the animal is so low that we refer to some humans as “sweating like a pig” even if in fact pigs can’s sweat!

Recently, the Mtarfa local council resorted to Facebook to inform the public that two small pigs were tearing black rubbish bags at Triq Belt il-Ġmiel.  The Council appealed to the owner of the pigs to capture them and clean the rubbish left behind.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a sequel to the appeal, so whether the pigs are still roaming about is a mystery.  This was rather disturbing given the proclivity of Maltese for the majjalata.  I prefer to think, however, that having filled their bellies, the pigs went back to the farm from where they escaped.  After all, pigs are also navigators: they can find their way home over large distances, often trotting at up to 11 miles per hour.

The story, though, made me think about other pigs – of the human variety.  These pigs have been reported to be leaving their black rubbish bags containing food and left-overs that properly belong to the bio-degradable grey bags, on pavements on days when there is no collection.  This has happened in various localities.

Now, everybody knows that we say the Maltese are finicky about cleaning their homes but tend to throw their rubbish onto the road.  But apparently they would have us believe that they no longer do so and attribute the disgusting habit to “those foreigners”.  Very convenient.

Workers’ market

There’s not a day that we do not read about employers who complain that they cannot find enough employees or ones with the right skills, on top of which they also bemoan the fact that they are at the mercy of employees who demand ever higher salaries.  Presumably, they are not talking about the circa 25,000 foreign nationals to whom they pay peanuts.

Is it true that it is a workers’ market and that labour turnover has never been higher?  Labour turnover (the sum of movements into and out of jobs over a particular period, expressed as a percentage of the total workforce) is an important and pervasive feature of the labour market. In OECD countries the rate in 2019 was just under 22%.  Since employment rarely changes by more than 1-2% a year, this means that the movement of workers between jobs is much greater than changes in the number of jobs.

A good understanding of labour turnover is, therefore, important for any analysis of the labour market.  Luckily, a recent paper by Dr Aaron Grech of the Central Bank of Malta provides us with a snapshot of what is happening in the local labour market.  Dr Grech reveals that in 2019 labour turnover was some 86%, decreasing to some 82% in 2022.  This is extremely high by comparison to what is happening in other European countries.  

This is not the place to delve into the detailed analysis made by Dr Grech, but I think that some statistics are worth mentioning – for example, the percentage of employees staying with the same employer going down to 69.2% from 72.4% in 2010; the labour turnover rate being 63% for Maltese compared to 114% for EU citizens and 149% for other nationals; the turnover rate of men almost doubling in four years to 82%, almost matching that of women at 84%; the turnover of those aged 20-24 being 181% compared to that of 48% for workers aged 45-54; and labour turnover being 144% in the accommodation and food sector compared to just 57% in manufacturing.

Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio

Why is the turnover rate so important?  Well, for a start it measures how effective a company’s methods are in retaining employees. A high turnover rate shows poor company culture and flawed hiring decisions.  It tells us how satisfied employees are, and if they are likely to leave.

High turnover rates are financially costly because of the retraining involved in hiring replacements. Such a situation leads to decreased morale when remaining employees have to take on additional responsibilities, and this inevitably leads to reduced productivity and quality, and may impact product quality and customer satisfaction.

On the other hand, in some cases increased turnover may also have positive effects such as opportunities for innovation, growth, and improved organisational performance. When employees choose to leave your organisation, they’re making way for you to find someone who is an even better fit for the organisation.  One unexpected advantage which I find intriguing is that the impact of turnover on company profits can be positive where wages are not set unilaterally – as confirmed by a 2005 study by Gaia Garino and Christopher Martin.

Dinosaurs

We all know how much children love dinosaurs.  Whether they would like some particular kinds of dinosaurs which exist in Malta is another question.  I am referring to the ones that I sometimes associate with the Education Ministry. 

What made me get hot under the collar this time round was the alleged closing down of the website teleskola.mt come next March, a claim made by Dr Arnold Cassola which, to my knowledge, hasn’t been denied.  This website was a rich depository of educational materials for students and teachers.

Dr Cassola quite rightly laments that, when we have one in four Maltese youngsters quitting the educational system  before the age of 16, eliminating on-line resources is not a very good idea.  Knowing the dinosaurs, they would probably say that, now that the pandemic is over, such a site is not needed and the resources can be used elsewhere.  Wrong.  That’s exactly why they are dinosaurs, because time has left them behind.

Photo credit: teleskola.mt

Precisely because of Covid, even education has changed.   Just like adult workers refusing to return to the office, many students are either skipping class or have great problems in paying attention when they attend.  So, forward-looking educators should be enhancing on-line educational resources, not closing them down.

If I am wrong and the alleged closing down is because of something better being planned, then I would be prepared to eat my proverbial hat and perhaps stop calling them dinosaurs, just dodos for the moment.

Blame the robot

Recently, I was struck by the news that a worker in his 40s in South Korea was crushed to death by a robot after it failed to differentiate him from the boxes of food it was handling. The robotic arm, confusing the man for a box of vegetables, grabbed him and pushed his body against the conveyer belt, crushing his face and chest.  Back in March, another man in his 50s had suffered serious injuries after getting trapped by a robot while working at an automobile parts manufacturing plant.

South Korea tops the world in the use of robot and, together with Japan, Germany, China, and Singapore accounts for 75 percent of the three million robots in the world.  I don’t know how extensive their use is in Malta, as information about this is very scarce, except that they are being used at Mater Dei Hospital for the dispensing of medicines to patients and I read once in a restaurant.

Photo credit: Sky News

Robots have boosted productivity in manufacturing of goods, but also in shipping, warehousing and logistics by a factor of five to ten times.  Today, robots collaborate with human workers (co-bots) on many repetitive tasks to streamline the assembly workflow.  Their use makes great sense when there are dangerous and voluminous tasks that can harm human workers.  Moreover, humans can get fatigued and distracted over long hours, potentially leading to injury or error.

Apparently, there have been some 33 deaths caused by robots over the past 30 years.  Of course, this is a tiny number compared to deaths by other causes. The real issue is how much people understand robots.  Most people have learned about robots from the movies and some have come to fear them.  And who can blame them? From the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still to the modern remake of the TV series Battlestar Gallactica, Hollywood tends to portray robots as human killers determined to destroy the earth.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.  Most industrial robots work in cages that have warning signs.  Despite the warning, people sometimes enter the cages while the robots are working, often to perform maintenance. Unfortunately, many robots do not know that a person is there because they have no sensors; they are just dumb machines. That’s when a robot, which is just doing the job it’s been programmed to do, hits the person and kills him. The mistake wasn’t on the robot’s part; it was human error for entering the cage without verifying that the robot was disabled.  Many modern robots now have sensors which can reduce the risk of such accidents.

Will there be accidents?  Of course. Humans design and create the robots, and humans make mistakes. 

Breaking the limit

It took two years of what must have been hell for a woman to be acquitted recently of having caused the death of a motorcyclist on Mistra bridge.  When one kills somebody, even by accident, the happening is sure to cause great distress and feelings of guilt. 

According to court reports, the woman in question exited from the Mistra sideroad onto the bridge and was crossing to the other side of the road when she collided with the motorcyclist, who had just overtaken a bus.  It was reported that the motorcyclist was standing up while driving with his right hand and therefore did not have proper control of the brakes.  In spite of various shortcomings by the Prosecution in presenting evidence from witnesses and from the architect who had prepared a site plan, the magistrate noted that it had been established that the motorcyclist was driving at 195km per hour.

Who in his senses would drive at that speed on a rather narrow stretch of road whose flat part is probably around 200 metres, the rest being downhill or uphill, is beyond me.  Somebody might say I don’t understand motorcyclists and the buzz they get from driving at high speed.  But I do.  I wouldn’t want to be one of them, but I can well understand the excitement as the heart beats faster, the blood flow to the brain and the muscles increases, and the body is stimulated to make sugar to use for “fuel”.

Captain America and Billy’s Bike come to mind, and seeing Henry Fonds and Dennis Hopper get the best out of their Harley-Davidson choppers is unforgettable.  Not to mention, James Bond driving a BSA A65 equipped with rocket launchers in Thunderbolt. But that was in the movies.

Driving a high-powered bike on a road in Malta is always a challenge, let alone if one breaks the speed limit.  I am saddened by the death of the bike rider but can hardly expect his sudden demise to be a lesson to others.  More often than not, the temptation to hear the roar of the engine is enough to make some riders do into over-drive.

Main photo credit: Mtarfa local council

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