Working too much, are we?   

▪️ Working too much, are we? ▪️ Activists are welcome ▪️ Stupid, Michel ▪️ Buy a dog

We love telling each other that Maltese workers “work like a mule”.  Wrong   ̶   that’s not what the statistics tell us. In fact, according to Eurostat, in 2023, while 7.1% of employed people in the EU worked long hours in their main job, only 4.6% of us did so.  (Long working hours refer to those workers who usually spend 49 hours or more per week at work.)

Long working hours have gone down in most EU countries during the period 2008-2023, though in some   ̶   like Ireland, Denmark, Sweden – they have increased.  In Malta, the decline has been of just over three percentage points.

Diligent work is important in any job, but a seemingly admirable drive can become dangerous to an employee’s physical and mental health if they work too long.  Psychiatric professionals in many countries are reporting tremendous burnout in their patients.  Thousands of workers resigned their jobs and went to work elsewhere, if not entirely disappeared, in the wake of Covid. 

Overworking is causing serious problems for businesses all over the globe.  In fact, death due to burnout is so prevalent in Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, and China that they have specific words meaning “death due to overwork”: “karoshi”, “gwarosa”, and “guolaosi”.  In Malta we might say “filġuni fuq il-bank tax-xogħol”.

Photo: Nataliya Vaitkevich

Burnout can lead to a range of physical health problems. Employees might experience poor sleep and increased chance of stroke. Research in other countries showed links between working longer hours and adverse health problems. Some of those included strokes and type 2 diabetes for those in lower socio-economic status groups.

According to the  Harvard Medical School, people who work 55 or more hours a week increase their risk of heart attack by 13%. They are also 33% more likely to suffer a stroke, compared with those who worked 35-40 hours per week. The mental health risks are no better, with a greater chance for depression, anxiety, and even suicide.

EY’s Global 2022 Work Reimagined Survey revealed that 52% of Maltese workers were contemplating leaving their current job. Almost half of respondents in Malta were not satisfied with their salary package and working conditions, while 60% were likely to quit if their preferences for when and where they work were not met by their employer.  One of the things they were looking for was a better work-life balance.

Activists are welcome

Europe has been in the grip of different crises over the last decade or so.  This ‘crisis decade’ has triggered discussions about solidarity and its limits. At the policy level, the debate was mostly about determining the desireability of solidarity with each vulnerable group while, at the street level, social actors and policy-makers involved saw the demand for concrete service provision grow while their resources stayed the same or retrenched.

In Malta, where developments always seem to take place well after they start elsewhere, we were spared most of the negative effects of the crises thanks to a high growth in GDP and the feel-good factor.  Suddenly, however, income per capita and optimism have given way to anxiety about the future and dissatisfaction with a thousand and one issues.  Every day I come across people – be they common folk or highly-educated individuals – who tell me to stop singing the praises of GDP and talk about wellness and fairness. 

The signs have been there to read for at least 18 months.  Yet, the powers-that-be are still scratching their heads as to why thousands of people are switching off while others are becoming angrier by the day.  There isn’t one single reason, but it is a concatenation of conditions and grievances which seems to pervade the whole of society.  It is not just the working class that is venting off; the middle class is also pissed off.

Because many policy-makers have stopped listening, we are seeing a blossoming of civil organisations who are filling the void.  I say “welcome, we need a bit of fresh air”.  And so should the Government and the Labour Party.  As I wrote recently, they don’t know it all.  There is a huge intellectual void on the left.  It’s enough to read the articles written by many politicians to realise that they never make any reference to today’s left-of-centre thinkers.  Nick Srnicek?  Éric Fassin?  Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca?  Who are they?  For God’s sake.

I haven’t mentioned economist Serge Latouche because our “left-of-centre, GDP-centric” politicians might have an apoplexy.  Latouche pioneered the ideology that we should aim for a reduction in consumption and production.  Sounds stupid?  Then why is it that consumption per capita in Malta has grown by leaps and bounds and yet people are unhappy?  Latouche opposes the continuous growth around which the economy is structured, on a planet that has been pushed to the brink.   In our case, it is a tiny island which is being stretched to the limits by construction and traffic, needing to spend big millions on infrastructure to cope with a burgeoning population.

Anthropologist Jason Hickel, the author of Less is More, adds: “We know that the main causes of human well-being are having access to public health, public education, and economic security… [these are] the things that matter. And, to achieve them, we don’t need to grow”.  His proposals include tax increases on wealth (the upper classes, he points out, are responsible for 72% of global emissions) or establishing both maximum and minimum incomes. OMG, tax the rich?  “That’s not left-wing, it’s killing the goose that lays the golden egg,” retort our fake left-of-centre politicians.

So, I again say welcome to the 14 organisations which came together on May Day to launch ‘Justice for Workers’   ̶   a list of seven main demands to address what they say is the unjust situation workers face in Malta: from being unable to make a living on a minimum wage to facing exploitation. “Workers are not machines,” is their battle cry.

According to Yana Mintoff Bland, the activists want ‘a new economic model that puts workers at the centre and to make sure these workers have a voice that is heard both in the workplace and in our political structures’.   Not to mention that Indian workers   ̶   whom a shadow minister associated with “filth and shabbiness”   ̶   suffer from many challenges stretching from health and safety risks to inhumane working conditions and exploitative wages.     

The civil society organisations that signed the document play a significant role in providing solidarity services in the community.  They deserve to receive much better operational conditions (budget, status, volunteers) to finance their service provision and advocacy.   Let me be clear:  there are some civil servants who are keen on doing so, but the majority still tend to see them as “leeches” who are competing for resources that the ‘we-know-better-administration’ would prefer to spend (and quite often mis-spend) directly.

I hope that the Labour Government will look at the civil society alliance as a friend.  After all, social democracy has been in a crisis for the last two decades precisely because new ideas haven’t been developed to maintain the essence of left-wing ideology.  As sociologist Manuel Castells has written, new ideas don’t come from parties, but rather, from social movements. Hence, it is necessary to integrate them into the process of conceptualising and implementing social progress.  If that is not done, social democracy will be liquidated.

Stupid, Michel

When he addressed the Press recently on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of membership of the EU by 10 countries, including Malta,European Council president Charles Michel said that it was “stupid and not acceptable” that around €300 billion worth of European savings were “fleeing” to the US every year, putting the Americans in a position to “buy promising start-ups and companies launched on European soil”.

If capital moves from one country to another, it is because the owners of that capital can ger better returns in one than in the other.  So, there’s nothing stupid about that.  What is stupid, on the other hand, is that decision-makers in the EU, including Michel himself, have wasted decades building a huge bureaucracy in Brussels and forgotten why they’re there in the first place.

I am amazed that the media attending his press conference was so acquiescent and did not ask hard-hitting questions.  “Would Mr Michel explain why, in the United States, average annual labour productivity growth accelerated from 1.2 percent during the period 1973–95 to 2.3 percent during 1995–2006, while during the same two time periods, annual labour productivity growth in the EU declined from 2.4 to 1.5 percent?”.  “Would Mr Michel tell us why the EU and the Commission are failing to reverse this decline?”.

One example of the EU shooting itself in the foot is the new EU environmental tax on shipping   ̶   a tax whicha recent European Parliament report said has only served to divert cargo ships to cheaper non-EU ports.  The tax is another blow to the EU’s and Malta’s economy and has led to higher shipping costs, when the Commission could have paid more attention to achieving a balance between a better environment and a more competitive economy.  “Isn’t that stupid, Mr Michel?” 

Michel tried to diminish the impact of the tax on Malta by reminding the Maltese Press that this should be seen in the context of EU money pumped into the country since it joined the bloc. Fair enough, but tell us, Mr Michel, does that mean that from now on we should put up with any stupid taxes coming out of Brussels because we should be ever-so-grateful for past hand-outs?  

Buy a dog

Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary is famous   ̶   or should I say infamous  ̶   for his straight talking.   Recently, the airline’s chief executive told The Independent of London that travellers seeking loyalty benefits of frequent-flyer schemes should instead “buy a dog”.  He effectively said that he doesn’t give a hoot what other competitors, like EasyJet or Wizz Air, do.

Ryanair is known to be highly critical of such schemes – they add complexity, but the airline also believes that passengers enrolled in frequent flyer programmes extract much more value from them than the cost of the subscription.

Mr O’Leary said, “I don’t understand why, if you’re already getting the lowest fares in Europe and, therefore, you’re already benefiting, saving money every time you fly with us, why do we need a loyalty scheme?  If you want something loyal, buy a dog. If you want the lowest air fares in Europe, fly Ryanair.”

This reminds me that a few years back O’Leary indulged in a canine charm offensive when he launched Ryanair’s ‘Always Getting Better’ plan. On that occasion, he decided to show that he was keen on “fixing the things our customers don’t like” by posing for a photograph of him cuddling a puppy.

Despite the prominence of the puppy, Ryanair rejected the prospect of carrying pets. Again, he was outspoken: “We tried it, but we lost a snake in Sicily and a cat at Milan Bergamo.”  Ergo, it didn’t work.

If the new Air Malta wants to compete with Ryanair, it must be as radical as the real low-cost model.

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John Baldacchino
John Baldacchino
9 days ago

Great article. Expecting Maltese politicians to heed to LaTouche is like expecting turkeys to vote for Christmas. Yet if there is a place on earth that really needs to engage with and understand the concept of degrowth it IS Malta! As to the “left” (or perhaps the “left-of-centre”, for the sake of the fainthearted) we know well how that has been treated over the years in Malta. Still, one can’t give up, I suppose.