Pope Francis: “The UBI could reshape relations in the labour market, guaranteeing the people the dignity of refusing employment terms that trap them in poverty. It would give the people the basic security they need, remove the stigma of welfarism and make it easier for them to move between jobs as technology-driven labour patterns increasingly demand.”
Let Us Dream by Pope Francis – Simon & Schuster – London 2020 – Page 132
JOB? MY LEFT FOOT!
“I don’t want your job. If you want to speak to me, ask for an appointment, and I will visit you to give you an estimate on how much my work could cost. For that you will have to pay me for one hour, at my rate.” A toilet unblocking technician told me that.
After a wild bottle party in the Swinging London of 1968, on a Saturday night in the flat I shared with 4 English boys, I discovered that our toilet bowl was overflowing as one or more of the party patrons must have stuffed what should not be stuffed down the S-bend. The little-man-round-the corner I phoned on Sunday morning quoted just these words to me.
THE SYSTEM HAS NOT CHANGED
This is a client/supplier power balance declaration not even African slaves who bought out their freedom 200 years ago in the Southern American States, would ever dream of uttering. The ‘system’ of the free market we live in, pre-supposes that the party with the money in hand dictates the conditions. In fact more accurately, it is the one with the knowhow who dictates the price. The classical maintenance bill used to read: Charge for tapping with a hammer on the toilet flushing = £1. Charge for knowing where to tap = £5.
Communist Socialism or Scandinavian Socialism have not changed the situation. It is true that various economic depressions in the 30’s, the 60’s, the 80’s and 00’s have ejected tradesmen from the system. Gladly most of them eventually became self-employed. Meaning employed by oneself but still not free enough not to be in the employ of someone. Alas even this nomenclature has the yoke-bearing connotation of the worker being employed by an employer.
However in the majority of cases of boss/employee relationship, the system remained the same. The big fish fed off the smaller ones. The ones with the big money still dictate rates and could cause inflation and raise the cost of services till they become unaffordable by the common citizen. When you call the professional firm to mend your car and not the little man round the corner, you don’t bargain a price, you just pay what they ask you to and finally you tip the technician who actually did the job. That is what causes inflation.
The system has even incorporated trade-unions (actually workers’ representatives) within its mechanism. Workers’ Unions depend on collectivity. They are never strong enough to defend individual workers. Where the Workers’ Unions became so strong that they could reverse the power-balance, the money holder could always rely on a Mrs Thatcher type of political phenomenon, to destroy the Workers’ Unions.
The worker today floats in a system that has for centuries depended on the survival of the fittest. Medieval lords issued patents or licences for a tradesman to operate within their geographic jurisdiction. The tradesman could be a privileged sole-operator but always had to be subject to having to pay the lord of the land for the permission to work in his demesne.
The system has not changed today. The artisan who invents a new formula is never strong enough to market it. He/she depends on a powerful marketeer to sell his/her invention. In most cases the money man buys out the idea altogether and is likely to offer long term employment to the inventor to deny him/her the chances of ever becoming independent.
EMPLOYERS, PATENTS AND INVENTORS
Those most powerful can register the licence of a product and distribute it only in places where the consumer can afford to pay the highest prices. This could even be a life-saving medicine yet the powerful ones have full control to restrict distribution only to the richer markets.
The geographical boundaries of today are endlessly mind-boggling when you think of multinational pharmaceutical conglomerates. The single worker is absolutely insignificant in the shadow of these giants. Even the ones who discover the formula in the first place cannot demand or dictate their compensation. It is true that inventors and programmers of electronic systems are given adequate bonuses but that is so only as long as they remain employed with the same boss.
THE TRAVELLING CARROT AND STICK METHOD
Banks, as well as providers of financial services and distance gaming giants, provide the best jobs with the highest salaries. The best brains go to work for them. Such workers have to give a guarantee that they can reach a minimum quota of business per month and try to surpass it constantly, whatever the market conditions of the day.
It is true that when such privileged employees reach their target they are given hefty bonuses. Yet once they prove their worth, their target thresholds are heightened by the system. The following month they will be paid more provided they sell more. A few months later their quota goes up again. The system keeps pushing until the worker has a mental breakdown or burn-out and quits. It is strange but true.
Even banks use the carrot and the stick method in their stocks and shares departments. Managers who work in the advances and loan departments have similar targets. Insurance brokers are not different. I recommend you see the film based on David Mamet’s stage play, Glengarry Glen Ross. In it, the employed real estate agent, played by Jack E. Lemon is suicidal at the end of his career when he misses his quota.
JOB? NO THANKS
I joined Barclays Bank (Dominion, Colonial and Overseas) in Valletta, Malta in 1957. After about 8 years I successfully completed a course for senior clerks working in the foreign department. During the closing interview a senior bank director was encouraging me to take my Banking Certificate exams privately. I asked the mighty director if that would get me a better pay. He said no, but my chances of promotion would be better. I immediately said that if I were to start studying part time I would study English and get a BA with which I could qualify to become a teacher. He was gobsmacked. I was telling the almighty, ‘Job? My left foot! You can keep it. I will not submit to this system.’
ONE SMALL STEP LEADS TO A BRAVE NEW WORLD
Three years later I took a day off and went to be a film extra on a big Hollywood movie. I never went back to the bank. Few of us had the guts to leave the system and abandon what was then the best job in Malta. Some did. One became a top stockbroker, another became a restaurateur of high repute, a friend of mine became a real estate magnate and eventually an ambassador and a few emigrated to Canada and Australia and had greater careers in banking.
In the 60’s in Malta we still had the colonialist mentality that the British were our only life source. Working for a British company was the best the natives could hope for no matter how unfair the circumstances were. Work conditions were always better than being employed by a small-time Maltese would-be businessman. At the bank we were bullied not to start up our own union. The only strong union of significant numbers in Malta was the General Workers Union (1943) which represented thousands of Royal Naval Dockyard workers.
The upper and middle class did not want independence from colonialism and the changes it would bring with it. They wanted to cling to the system which made them rich. The Maltese business man was never a manufacturer but always an importer of foreign goods.
Conservative governments submitted to the British Colonial Office rules and regulations. They allowed private enterprise a free hand and hardly ever protected the workers. The Church would not bless females who worked night-shifts at the airport. Much less did they encourage unmarried women to emigrate and seek work abroad. Malta had no female police or soldiers. Malta did not have its own airline before 1974 so what were termed as ‘fancy jobs’ were anathema in Malta.
In this choking environment, those of us who took the first brave step were considered rebels. We crazy few had to fight against these overwhelming forces. The government, religion and tradition were forbidding anyone to take any initiative to improve one’s lifestyle. The few of us who took the first brave little step opened up a way to a brave new world.
THE FAMILY GENIUS
In 1952 one member of a Maltese business family which had one of the first breweries, came out with a non-alcoholic pop drink called Kinnie and today it is strong enough to be an exporter. It is a bitter-sweet baked orange and herbs concoction guessing the taste of an Italian equivalent. This great drink of ours is still there today and it dominates the local market over the imported American colas and pop drinks. The point I am trying to make here is that there is always the individual who can invent something new and thumb his/her nose at the international giants.
MALTA A GROWING NATION
Today the situation of the worker in Malta is different. Many are self-employed and freelancers. Others have an easy day-job mostly with government entities and then part-time are private entrepreneurs. The female workforce is growing every day. There are always more female students at university than males. My wife’s cousin, a young lady graduate, is a maritime engineer. She works on ships abroad. There are hardly any housemaids or janitors left, who are Maltese. Menial work is done by foreign economic refugees.
Nonetheless conservative politicians still cling to the medieval status quo. When Malta was preparing to join the EU in 2004, our then minister for finance warned Small and Medium Enterprise operators that the new EU economic system would obliterate them. He advised the SMEs to join up with bigger fish or disappear.
The worst attitude was that our parents born and bred before WWII preferred to resist change. In time, however, new parallel systems were growing. Those of us who bucked the system in the 60’s started the freelancer’s brigade. They made sure to hand over to their offspring, who eventually made the small family businesses grow and diversify. Also most of them ensured that their offspring became better educated. After Malta joined the EU in 2004 its voice grew strong in the European Parliament and it became a pace setter.
We were one of the first nations to introduce a minimum wage. Malta established a state pension for all whether they had been regular contributors to the National Insurance regime or not. Our health services are free for all. In our state of the art hospitals citizens can get a heart transplant for free.
Taxes in Malta are low and those tax regimes applied to foreign businesses are competitive enough to attract foreign investment away from major European economies.
With the change of government in 1996 from a conservative one to a progressive socialist regime of the Malta Labour Party, the government created a new ministry for small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Eventually even the EU accepted that SMEs are the backbone of the economy. The tiny grocer’s shop at the corner not only did not close in the shadow of Lidl but expanded its service to Sundays till 11pm.
Freelancers proliferated in every trade. With the aid of the new electronic social media their marketing strategies became ultra efficient. With a simple cell-phone they could work from a tool shed or from their van with the efficiency of the biggest multinational retail outlet. The Freelancers’ Brigade is here to stay.
A BENIGN PATERNALISTIC GOVERNMENT
In Malta, education is completely free up to the highest degrees at university. Students of 16 years of age studying in tertiary education institutes get a monthly stipend to cover basic costs for buying books and electronic gadgets related to their studies. The stipend increases with every year of progress.
This political system, which makes the government take up responsibility for the wellbeing of all citizens is self perpetuating. The more foreign investments that start up in Malta, the bigger the need for higher echelon jobs which are being created on a daily basis. Maltese youth are enticed to study for higher degrees once they have assurance of employment at the end of their studies.
The more they study the higher is the incidence of geniuses being identified and encouraged to study abroad. My accountant’s daughter is head of the studies department at the Royal College of Music, London. Her sister is a urologist in a hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland. In the list of 50 top inventors in the world, 11 are Maltese.
The Malta government of today is like a benign father who encourages his children to study and aspire for higher positions in society. Government sponsors all education indiscriminately. It has proved that education is the key to progress.
MALTA HELPS ABROAD
Today many Maltese medical specialists are operating in top medical centres in Saudi Arabia, London and the United states. My cousin Margaret’s son is one of them. The Zarb family had 2 sons who became dentists and today they are heads of dentistry hospitals in Canada. You read about innovative medical breakthroughs made abroad which are piloted by Maltese doctors.
Prof. Gerhardt Attard, a Maltese national, who graduated MD at Malta university is today the leader of a research team at the University College London. He is the team leader of Treatment Resistance Group, at UCL Cancer Institute. This month (Sep. 2021) he has just announced the result of a 6 year research on 2 test groups of 900 + 900 patients which confirms that the use of Abiraterone in prostate cancer patients lengthens their life expectancy. Out of little Malta a lot of innovators and inventors spring up.
In the daily Times of Malta of the 2nd May, 2017 there is an article called, System to Purify Contaminated Water in Kenya. It tells of an anonymous Maltese engineer who invented a novel filtering system affordable by the poorest. This engineer who does not wish to be identified is sponsored by a Church mission organisation that collects funds on television, Maratona Missjoni.
They have similar aid programmes with other missions run by Maltese priests and doctors in Peru and Honduras. All this is done by volunteers from little Malta, which shows how the citizens of a welfare state do not rely on big corporations to bring about change in the lives of poor nations.
The state also does its share of international aid proportionately to its GDP. This year it exported 468 tonnes of home grown potatoes to Namibia as state aid. Namibia was suffering from the effects of a severe drought exacerbated by Covid 19 repercussions. The Maltese Government paid its farmers Euro 200,000 for the potato supply. It happened that local farmers were hit negatively by cancellation of orders from Covid 19 strapped European states, who are their regular clients.
That way the Malta government showed how the mentality of this resilient people can find solutions not only to its own problems but also to those of other nations who are currently worse off. This mentality of self-sufficiency comes from the history of a people of a small island with no natural resources who are independent of larger and richer foreign rulers. This mentality of self-sufficiency trickles down to the attitude of the single worker.
A WORLD CLASS MALTESE OPERA SINGER
What brought about this worker empowerment? The smallness of the country with hardly 500,000 citizens cannot compete in mass production. With the closing of the British Services establishments in the 70s, the Malta government had to look elsewhere for job creation. German manufacturers were lured with good infrastructural provisions to set up a manufacturing industry in Malta. Some of them are still running today. One of them, Playmobil, a toy maker, has expanded its product worldwide. Its iconic toys are found in almost every household in the world. They are even making movies with their toy characters now.
The answer is that a creative individual in Malta is given every opportunity to train and study or even endeavour to come out with a new idea and become the employer rather than the employee. The solution is education. In my time a musician could not live from his art and was a postman by day and a sax player by night, in some nightclubs.
Today the education system in Malta is so improved that musicians are funded by the government to specialise in academies abroad and many have become international performers. Our ambassador for Maltese culture, tenor Joseph Calleja is world famous. In turn he created a 200 strong children’s choir and is now offering scholarships for further study to the most promising Maltese bel canto singers.
EDUCATION LEADS TO INVISIBLE EARNINGS – SHIPPING
Maltese workers are better educated today than they have ever been. Many have high salaried jobs in the services industry. What was in colonial times the exclusive work of British agencies is today in the hands of Maltese entrepreneurs. The Maltese operate on international markets in finance, oil distribution, packaging of foodstuffs and shipping.
The shipping register is one of the top ten in volume of shipping registers in the world, competing with the likes of Norway, the UK, Greece and Japan. Yacht marinas are increasing every year and they are always full, and the government has had to expand them every year in the last 10 years. The Malta Shipping Register sector for superyachts is the largest in the world. It includes 850 vessels with hulls larger than 24 metres. The shipping sector in Malta makes up for 11% of the national economy. (See Times of Malta article, 24 Nov 2020 Malta Boasts Largest Register of superyachts in the world.) Only this week (maltatoday 30th Sept 2021 – Kurt Sansone) a Maltese private company launched the first ever yacht floating lift in the Mediterranean. Hefty yachts are lifted dry on it to be serviced and repaired above water.
The income from servicing these enterprises is what the British used to call invisible earnings. We do not need to import raw material or export products, we just sit here and service the paperwork. Our lawyers and accountants and also insurance brokers can hardly keep up with the quantity of legal and financial accounting and auditing or insurance brokerage work involved. The great majority of these invisible operators are freelancers.
The national GDP in Malta is the highest it has ever been and the government does not have to increase taxes every year to cope. In fact the government of today is proud that every year wages and pensions are increased but no new taxes or raise in taxes is effected.
Am I talking about Shangrila? Is this some fairytale country with magicians for politicians? No, this is a small island with no natural resources. Our best resource is highly educated, hard-working humans with an excellent work ethic. In Malta the crisis is not lack of jobs but lack of personnel to fit the high end jobs. This is achieved by the provision of free education up to university graduation and to the payment of a monthly stipend to all students over 16 years of age. To me it feels like it is the first step to a universal basic income.
Our sun and the sea attract tourists and investors alike. I am not mentioning tourism because it is an economic cliché that an exotic island in the middle of the Mediterranean could live on its tourism only. In fact tourism contributes under 30% of the economy. The tourism industry in Malta employs too many foreigners in lower echelon jobs or the relative menial work.
SYNTONY BETWEEN GOVERNMENT AND WORKERS
What is the secret? It is a matter of educating the voters to choose the leaders who are really concerned about the wellbeing of the weakest in society. Our people with disabilities get a minimum wage whether they stay home or go out to work. If they earn an income from a job they still get their disability pension. A ghost UBI again.
The Malta government can afford to do this because the party in power does not need funding from big business corporations. In the mid-nineties the policy for collecting political party funds was to receive a little from the many and not to receive a lot from the few. Therefore there is this syntony between the government and its people. They both have faith in each other. The Malta Government is pro-business and protects the Small and Medium enterprise sector as well as the self-employed.
The government trusts the workers to make themselves self-sufficient. The workers trust the government to provide them with the right education to become self-sufficient. This is a good example of the Chinese proverb that the government does not give the hungry worker a fish to eat but teaches him how to catch fish. Job incentives are so good that the number of people depending on social assistance and welfare has been halved in the last 10 years.
Unemployment is the second lowest in the EU. Workers in gainful employment are at a record high. Female employment has had the largest increase in the EU since 2008. (although it is still comparatively low). Government has introduced free childcare for all to encourage young mothers to keep their job or go out to work for the first time. This is yet another benefit that mimics a UBI.
The worker can see that the government has consistently provided free health services for all, free education for all and industrial aid for new start-ups and SMEs. Government has a social housing programme that has allowed 82% of Maltese families to become homeowners.
Unemployment is negligible in Malta and practically there is full employment. Employers complain they cannot find an adequate supply of graduate candidates for lucrative jobs. Malta is a constant welfare state, which protects the most vulnerable. High employment raises the national GDP which makes the government stronger. That way it is in a better position to protect the citizens who have endemic living restrictions. Eurostat shows that 95% of the people living in Malta are satisfied with their life and 30% are very satisfied.
The saying goes, ‘it takes two to Tango’. The Malta government and the Maltese workers are proving to be complementary dance partners. The national education and work promotion programmes have inspired potential workers to rise to the occasion and develop an enviable work ethic. Maltese workers love their work and they are proud of their careers. All this is thanks to the syntony that exists between the Government and the workers.
ONE STEP AWAY FROM UBI
Maltese workers do not depend on welfarism to survive. They can afford to be choosy when accepting job offers. They feel free and empowered to venture out and start up on their own. They see that the old conservative mould of rich employers controlling poor workers is now obsolete and almost completely destroyed. They can indeed exclaim, ‘Job? My left foot!’. They can do this thanks to the wisdom of a government which provides the necessary means which cultivate this mentality.
The Malta government is one step away from providing an all embracing umbrella of a Universal Basic Income. Yet, strangely enough, no government official speaks about it.
Narcy Calamatta is a veteran writer, designer, actor and director on stage, TV and film. A militant in social causes, he regularly contributes to local print media in Malta in English and Maltese.
He has been editor of a left-wing political satirical bi-weekly gazette and a stringer for the international issue of the Hollywood Reporter. He was the drama and art critic on the first local electronic newspaper, maltastar.com.
His essays on the tourism and film industries have been published in a guide book in three languages and he has published a book with a collection of four of his plays in English and their translation in Maltese.
This year he published a dissertation on Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame and its translation into Maltese. He is the editor of two books; Survivors II by international photographer Joe P Smith and Somebody Up There Loves Me, his brother Peter’s saga in Maltese on his fight with cancer. Narcy has also written three scripts for award-winning short films and he wrote the scripts for seven episodes of a TV comedy series. His dissertation on The Beheading of St John, the Caravaggio masterpiece that hangs in St John’s Cathedral in Valletta, was published locally and he delivered it as a lecture at the Library of Congress, Washington DC.
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