Game over for temping abuse

The proposed legislation concerning temporary workers aims to address several key concerns in the labour market, reflecting the government's commitment to meeting society’s evolving needs.

The government is at an advanced stage of unveiling a significant draft legislation that concerns temporary workers.

Parliamentary Secretary for Social Dialogue, Andy Ellul, unveiled a bit more about what is expected to change once the law is in force, framing these developments within the government’s commitment to meeting the evolving needs of society.

There are three distinct sections when it comes to the employment of foreign workers from third countries; not all of them have the same arrangement with their employers.

  1. Recruitment Agencies focus on the employment of foreign workers, involving an interview and selection process before they are officially added to the company’s workforce.
  2. Outsourced workers remain under the jurisdiction of the entity that hires them. Such workers are often found in companies dealing with security, care, or hospitality.
  3. Temping agencies cater for the temporary assignment of workers transferred from one employer to another, for a fixed period.

The pitfalls of temping

Not all temping agencies are the same, but they are subject to many pitfalls.

One significant disadvantage for workers engaged this way is their limited job security, since their positions are typically of short duration. Other challenges they face are fluctuating incomes and the fact that they often do not receive the same benefits as their full-time counterparts. They must work irregular and unpredictable working hours and may be required to work extended hours or be called in on short notice. In short, work-life balance is often out of the question.

For them, career growth is limited and they often miss out on skill development and training opportunities that are available to full-time employees. Communication challenges can also arise in temporary positions, both because these workers are often foreign and because they may not always have direct access to company resources, information, or communication channels.

Perhaps the biggest concern is the fact that these workers may be vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous temp agencies. These agencies may engage in practices such as paying low wages, disregarding labour laws, or failing to address workplace concerns adequately.

Function first, regulate later

The government has been consistently attributing the temping phenomenon to Malta’s growing economy. It’s quite evident, and frankly repeated ad nauseam, that in the past decade the local landscape has seen a significant and sustained emphasis on economic growth. The reasons behind this focus are various, with the overarching goal of improving living standards, reducing poverty, and encouraging prosperity for both people and businesses. Through various policy initiatives, the past ten years have witnessed a concerted effort to boost the GDP, create jobs, and enhance the overall economic well-being of those living in Malta.

Yet challenges and disparities persist, and it is often argued that we now have a new poverty, akin to modern-day slavery. The biggest question remains: why did the government allow temping agencies to do their thing first, and be regulated later?

The reason that is constantly and consistently given is that Malta now has the ‘luxury’ to regulate, having expanded its economy. Is it luxury, though?

While economic prosperity is undoubtedly crucial, the pursuit of growth has, at times, overshadowed the fundamental well-being of individuals and communities. A shift in focus would have fostered a more sustainable and equitable path toward a brighter future for all, including workers who set foot on the island in search for work.

What will change?

Parliamentary Secretary Ellul noted that the proposed legislation aims to address several key concerns in the labour market. Here’s what both Prime Minister Robert Abela and the Parliamentary Secretary have said so far.

  • Controlled immigration

The government intends to ensure that workers from third countries entering Malta are genuinely needed by the industries. This means that only the required number of workers will be permitted; this will help regulate the labour market and prevent an oversupply of labour. The existing unregulated state of labour agencies will be reformed to accommodate this change. A data-driven approach, using labour force surveys and market assessments, will ensure that the right number of skilled workers are available.

  • Adaptation to new realities

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic introduced new dynamics to the labour market, including the rise of digital platform work. Platform work, also known as gig work or on-demand work, is when individuals perform tasks or provide services through digital platforms or apps, often on a short-term or freelance basis. We see these workers all around us, delivering grocery shopping, documents, and food, among other tasks. The government has already regulated this sector, dispelling concerns of market disruption. Temping agencies will soon follow in being regulated in a similar way.  

  • Licensing and accountability

A significant step in the proposed legislation is the introduction of a licensing system for labour market operators. This move aims to enhance accountability and weed out unscrupulous actors. Strict criteria will be established, and those failing to meet them risk losing their licenses. What we now look forward to seeing is what these criteria are, and how they will be enforced.

All for the better

The government has sought input from various stakeholders, including industry representatives, social partners, and employers’ associations, to come up with a draft legislation. It’s now only a matter of time until we know what’s in it.

What we know for certain is that it’s in the government’s interest to not disrupt the market but to refine and enhance it, for the sake of both employers and workers. There is no option to tackling agencies whose only interest is to cash in on the vulnerabilities of people who are desperate for work. It’s never too late.

PHOTO: Abused and exploited: A third country national passes his time in idleness after having been lured to Malta by a false promise of employment. (Sandro Mangion)

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