If Maltese institutions claim that anything below the average wage is a poverty wage, isn’t it time for other authorities to take action? If below-average wages effectively discriminate against those with dependent family members, why is it legal for employers to pay such wages?
Picture by Raisa Galea (taken on one of her many visits to Identity Malta)
In autumn, the Times of Malta journalist Kristina Abela followed the case of a Serbian family who were refused an extension of the children’s residence permit due to insufficient income. When it came to the attention of Identity Malta that press was monitoring the process, it suddenly granted the extension, although the family’s circumstances had not changed. This clearly shows the arbitrary nature of migration decisions, and the futility of any explanation claiming that Identity Malta’s newfound zeal to enforce policies is about the rule of law.
This was before Malta was hit by the ongoing political crisis, and before the Christmas charity bandwagon kicked off. When more deportation cases emerged in December, the tone of the discussion drastically changed.
Towards the end of 2019, 22 and then another 19 migrant children in Malta were refused residence permits due to family income. Although numerous commentators spewed the usual hostility (‘What did they expect?’), many others lamented the enforcement of the 2007 law—including high-ranking politicians from the party which passed the law in the first place. How can authorities be so heartless to expel children just before Christmas? Tenor Joseph Calleja and Caritas immediately started raising funds, although the Times of Malta article made it very clear: unless income is regular and documented, it will not count towards the residence permit. But can charity money buy these children a future in Malta?
Who Can Be Reunited?
The authorities do not treat a labour migrant the same way they treat a citizen—or even a refugee. A labour migrant must prove their ‘non-burdening status’ in terms of the host country’s social systems in every step. Around the world, working-class migrants often pay exorbitant agency fees and enter into debt bondage so as to fulfill such obligations.
Migration gatekeepers require migrants to commit to not getting pregnant or send their children away. Authorities demand various kinds of assurances that the migrant will not ask for any social rights in an event of physical or mental illness or family challenges. The state treats a labour migrant as a mere function of their labour. This means restrictions as to the possibility to enjoy a full, complex human life that may include romance, family, hobbies, trial and error in choosing one’s life paths. Everything is about work and wages.
The state treats a labour migrant as a mere function of their labour. This means restrictions as to the possibility to enjoy a full, complex human life that may include romance, family, hobbies, trial and error in choosing one’s life paths.
Reports from 2007 show that Malta was dragging its feet when incorporating the 2003 EU directive on family reunification into national law. Decisions on family reunification were decided case-by-case. Finally, Subsidiary Legislation 217.06 of 2007 (Family reunification regulations) codified this right into a law. It states the requirement to earn an average wage plus a supplement for each dependent family member “without recourse to the social assistance system” (article 18(a)). According to the law, minimum wage is enough for refugees (article 27(b)), but not other third country nationals.
Malta’s use of the average rather than the minimum wage benchmark in such cases was diagnosed as a breach of the directive, but Malta’s authorities explain the issue away by pointing to an alternative measurement—the at-risk-of-poverty benchmark established in the Statistics on Income and Living Conditions (SILC). The basis for the alternative measurement is article 12 in the law, stating that if the average wage condition is not met, “the Director shall consider all relevant circumstances”.
Article 10 of the regulations states that “When examining an application, the best interests of minor children shall be taken into consideration.” Are they?
The Limits of Charity
Parliamentary Secretary Julia Farrugia Portelli sparked rage in many when she stated that deporting the children was in their best interests, as it was meant to protect them from living in poverty. In the most benign of possible interpretations, this remark reveals biased assumptions about labour migration—that nuclear family-based post-industrial societies cannot be source of migrant labour.
When a breadwinner moves to a new country and sends remittances, their family can make a living due to price differences. In Abela’s September article, a Filipino community representative is quoted as saying that this is often the case in Filipino migration. Serbians, meanwhile, live and migrate in nuclear families. Malta supports the nuclear family domestically, but it requires labour migrants to live in anything but such a family of parents and their children.
Beyond that, Identity Malta and Farrugia Portelli inadvertently made a political statement about the level of wages migrant workers are likely to earn—it indirectly stated that these are poverty wages. Thus, if Maltese institutions claim that anything below the average wage is a poverty wage, isn’t it time for other authorities to take action? If below-average wages effectively discriminate against those with dependent family members, why is it legal for employers to pay such wages? It is striking that a tenor is more likely to make a statement on this situation than Maltese trade unions.
If below-average wages effectively discriminate against those with dependent family members, why is it legal for employers to pay such wages?
Some of the affected workers receive bonuses and other forms of income, but this no longer counts towards Identity Malta’s assessment. Knowing how common it is to meet waiters from the Western Balkans, we can deduct that income earned as tips keeps families away from poverty when earning a minimum wage, but it is invisible to Identity Malta. “Identity Malta used to accept a bank statement showing they had enough money to maintain their children or they could get a friend to act as a sponsor for the child. But now they won’t even accept that,” Slobodan Rangelov, a community organiser, told the Times of Malta in September.
This demonstrates that even the numerous well-wishers who raised funds and called for sponsorships for the children did not assess the actual situation. Carried away by emotional sensationalism (Children! Christmas! Bad, bad government! Christmas charity! Good, good donors!), the media lifted many statements off celebrities’ social networks and did not question what exactly they were going to buy with these funds. If Identity Malta did not acknowledge the money in the families’ bank accounts or from friends in the community, why would they treat these sponsors’ one-time donations differently?
We only find out about a good use for the money from Serbian media: with the loss of their residence permit, these children apparently lost their tuition fee sponsorship, and the families need money for their children’s education. This, and lawyer fees can indeed be covered from donations, but this will not persuade Identity Malta. Rangelov also speculated that the newly found zeal in enforcing wage requirements is about restricting the children’s access to schooling—an idea that deserves to be further explored, but was not picked up when the story re-emerged in December.
When it comes to labour migration, the state treats everything about the migrant’s life as a derivative of their labour, and so work must be at the centre of the discussion we are having about the fate of these families. Their situation exposes what is rotten in Malta’s cash-based, highly informal, and painfully exploitative economy.
Numerous workers rely on precarious, unaccounted and unpredictable income to make ends meet. It is not uncommon to pay a part of the wages in cash, benefits or varying bonuses. The worker will make enough, but just how much depends on the employer’s whim. This is unfair and stressful towards Maltese, EU and refugee workers as well, but at least their right to hold their family close does not depend on that. A non-EU worker is not allowed to be a waiter/ waitress living off tips and live in a nuclear family.
Migration policies, too, are highly opaque—from citizenship decisions by a minister’s discretion to the leeway that Identity Malta can exercise in granting family reunification permits.
Migration policies, too, are highly opaque—from citizenship decisions by a minister’s discretion to the leeway that Identity Malta can exercise in granting family reunification permits. Migrants’ fates are not set by clear rules voted for by the legislature, but rather the moods and whims of the executive. The transposition of the family reunification directive is an example of how Malta was doing everything to wriggle away from setting clear and predictable rules.
The story the Times covered in September clearly points out that laws did not change—the bureaucracy merely decided to enforce them differently, and changed its approach when probed by a journalist. It is unfortunate that these structural factors were not explained to the general public when the story reemerged before Christmas.
Instead of clear rules (contracts in employment and laws in policymaking), vulnerable workers and their families rely on authority figures, which keeps them in a state of dependency. Will the employer pay a bonus? Will the authority provide a more lenient measurement? Will its kind grace accept the proof of some precarious sponsorship? Will a celebrity pick up the cause? Without clear rules, the worker is kept in a state of gratitude for merely enjoying a right that is theirs.
Let’s add the fact that a parliamentary secretary and Identity Malta have admitted that employers pay poverty wages.
As the holidays and their charity moods retreat, it is time to return the discussion to the points Kristina Abela’s article aptly raised in September. Namely, the arbitrary nature in migration decisions, the perils for nuclear families, and the issues posed by Malta’s cash economy. Let’s add the fact that a parliamentary secretary and Identity Malta have admitted that employers pay poverty wages. This is a matter of more than 41 children. At its core, it is about replacing arbitrary decisions, charity, mercy and poverty wages with solidarity, human and workers’ rights.