To find out more about the state of solidarity between workers of different ethnicity and their working conditions, I paid a visit to a private company which employs a large number of individuals from all over the world.
by Raisa Galea
Collage by the author
Although workers, local and foreign, are at the fore of heated public debates, the media seldom publicises their first-hand experiences. They are broadly discussed and alluded to by others, but remain practically invisible and unrepresented themselves.
There are two opposing narratives which keep recurring. I have lost count of opinion pieces that pitch local and foreign workers against one another by claiming that, for instance, the latter are responsible for the overall decrease in the quality of life of ordinary Maltese citizens. Foreign workers, we are repeatedly told, are the true cause of Malta’s humiliatingly low wages.
The other prevailing narrative speculates that Maltese working class people are particularly susceptible to racism; and such despicable beings, by definition, do not deserve better living and working conditions. Associations between a working class background and xenophobia have become almost proverbial.
Certainly, it may be tempting to denounce all those blaming low wages on foreign workers as racists. Likewise, everyone who holds racism as an innate characteristic of the working class could be labelled as classist or, at best, a hypocrite. But would this blame game help us determine the cause of social ills? Can moral posturing and hollow arguments truly challenge our perceptions? I do not think so.
I’m also certain that workers’ own voices must be heard. Thus, to find out more about the state of solidarity between workers of different ethnicity and their working conditions, I paid a visit to a private company which employs a large number of individuals from all over the world.
For example: OzoGroup, Malta’s Number One Service Industry Corporation
OzoGroup is Malta’s number one private sector employer. Originally established in 1996 as a small cleaning company, consisting of chairman Mario Muscat and a few other employees, the enterprise has grown extensively over the past decade. It currently comprises 12 companies, each specialising in different sectors of hospitality and service industry. In 2017, OzoGroup received a European Business Award in the categories ‘National Champions’ and ‘Best Company in Europe’.
Several of the group’s companies trade in human resources: they outsource service personnel to hotels, restaurants and the manufacturing industry. Evidently, this business is a lucrative one—following its expansion, the corporate headquarters have recently been moved to a new building in Qormi, partly still under construction.
Several of OzoGroup’s companies trade in human resources: they outsource service personnel to hotels, restaurants and the manufacturing industry.
“Here, at Ozo, we have workers of many nationalities. These are from Kenya and Italy”, Fabio, one of the managers, tells me as we walk past two male labourers fixing the building’s interior. We arrive at the administration floor—newly refurbished, spacious and bathing in natural light. Passing by the glass doors of the office rooms, Fabio mentions the nationalities of their occupants: Serbian, Maltese, Macedonian, Nigerian.
These comfortable offices are designated for managers, each responsible for the group’s different departments. I point out that my plan was to meet workers and not managers, but Fabio suggests to have a word with the managers first. He introduces me to the Head of the Hospitality Department, Tatjana Kavaji, a Serbian woman who has been living in Malta for 22 years, seven of which she spent working in the company.
Her own work experience at OzoGroup is a positive one: “We have no such definitions like ‘foreigners’ and ‘Maltese’ here. I never felt as a foreigner, but as part of a team and part of a family, from day one”, Tatjana tells me with a smile.
“We have no such definitions like ‘foreigners’ and ‘Maltese’ here. I never felt as a foreigner, but as part of a team and part of a family, from day one”
I ask her in which language does the company’s staff usually communicate with at work. “Depends on the situation”, she answers. Although most of the time Tatjana communicates in English with her director and colleagues, she nevertheless can hold a conversation in Maltese when necessary.
With audible pride, Ms Kavaji tells me that in 2012, the year she joined the group, its service personnel for the hotel industry consisted of 168 women, which seemed like a “huge number” back then. By 2019, the group employs over 2,000 workers. As Head of the Hospitality Department, Tatjana has over 1,000 people under her supervision, all working in private households or the food & beverage sector.
OzoGroup actively looks for more labourers abroad, where it reaches out to all those seeking employment via recruitment agencies. The group also takes care of obtaining work permits for all its foreign employees to whom it offers contracts of a minimum duration of one year.
For the past four years, Ms Kavaji went on at least two recruitment trips per year. In January 2019 alone, she enrolled over 100 persons from Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia. In total, OzoGroup employs workers of 37 different nationalities. British, Nepalese, Filipino, Bulgarian, Serbian, Bosnian, Turk, Italian, Romanian, Indian and, of course, Maltese employees are but a fraction of the diverse workforce from whose labour the corporation profits.
The team of managers is equally multi-ethnic and includes Maltese, Serbian, Bosnian, Nigerian and Turkish members, just to mention a few.
Brian, a manager from Nigeria, tells me his colleagues all work well with each other, pointing out that, personally, he has never experienced any ethnically-induced conflicts on the workplace. Brian came to Malta in 2010 to study at the university and has been engaged with OzoGroup since graduating in 2015. He strongly believes that the mainstream media is culpable of portraying migrant workers in a bad light, which consequently leads to a negative perception of them by the general public.
“I am a member of Nigerian community here, in Malta. We often meet the Prime Minister and the President. We don’t have problems”, Brian asserts, adding that many Nigerians are married to Maltese, have children and get on well together.
A manager of Serbian origin, George, started off in 2013 as a cleaner. Soon enough he moved up the career ladder and was promoted to supervisor. George is now a coordinator of the housekeeping unit overseeing work of around 500 people.
OzoGroup employs workers of 37 different nationalities.
A friendly relationship between the managers transcends the workplace. Despite having little time for socialising outside working hours, coordinators still meet from time to time, says Isabelle Farrugia, a general manager who supervises over 400 factory workers. On occasions they celebrate birthdays and the winter festive season together.
Wages and Working Conditions
OzoGroup’s regular employees receive their wage on the 15th of every month. Replying to my inquiry about what the wage for workers amounts to, Tatjana Kavaji beams with pride: “At the moment, it is 5.08 Euro—higher than the minimum wage of 4.50 Euro*!” I struggle to share Ms Kavaji’s enthusiasm and make an effort not to scold her.
Indeed, anyone earning as little as 5.08 Euro per hour (or 812.8 Euro a month)—and who doesn’t own property—faces a great challenge when it comes to finding a roof over their head. My next question to Tatjana concerns the housing situation. “I often hear and read comments stating that Maltese tenants are losing a rental market bidding war to foreign workers, who are supposedly at an advantage since they can share an apartment with a few others, earn some money and then leave”, I say, curiously anticipating her reply.
Tatjana boldly shakes her head: “Workers have to find a solution since the prices are too high”, she points out reasonably (yet ignoring a critical detail that workers’ low pay is another prime cause of their struggle). She insists that strict regulations are now in place to establish and enforce the maximum number of tenants allowed. The sky-high rent, in her opinion, is a consequence of the gaming companies’ influx as well as the influence of high networth individuals who keep pouring to Malta from abroad.
Overall, Ms Kavaji sounds like a textbook case of free market advocacy. Had she been a landlord herself, she admits, renting out property for a higher amount would be a natural choice to make.
A phone call interrupts our conversation: “You can choose any girl and she will be working with you for 8 hours”, Tatjana commands someone on the other side of the line. “She can work on the Moon, in Ozo building or with you, it doesn’t matter. If she refuses, she’s up for a penalty!..” Alas, Ms Kavaji does not seem too concerned about the employee’s wellbeing. Listening to her speak, I cannot but sympathise with the worker who is treated as a mere tool and whose sentiments are completely ignored. Yet, I am not too surprised—to any corporation, employees are a mere resource to profit from.
Bizarrely, Tatjana goes as far as blaming workers for the poor wages they earn. According to her, salaries remain low due to workers’ own desire to engage in undeclared work for a slightly higher pay—and not the employers’ reluctance to pay employees better. She sounds perplexed and exasperated speaking about ‘ungrateful’ individuals waiting tables irregularly—and uninsured—in Paceville for a clean cash of 5.50 – 6.60 Euro per hour.
Isn’t toiling obediently at OzoGroup for a lavish pay of 5.08 Euro plus governmental bonuses good enough, she genuinely wonders. It does not cross her mind that an hourly pay of 5.08 Euro is tremendously low to begin with.
Isn’t toiling obediently at OzoGroup for a lavish pay of 5.08 Euro plus governmental bonuses good enough, Tatjana genuinely wonders.
“If you seem to agree that foreign workers are the real cause of meager wages, then perhaps Ozo’s foreign employees should be sent away to allow the Maltese earn more”, I tell Tatjana provocatively, barely hiding my contempt. She shakes her head again. Maltese do not want these kind of jobs, she insists. Apparently, most of Maltese youth are simply too spoilt by the government’s generosity and thus are not hard-pressed to waitress or wash dishes for peanuts. Maltese waiters are so rare, I learn, that they have become a status symbol for a venue that employs them.
I remind Tatjana that the purpose of my visit is to meet workers and learn about their own experience of toiling alongside colleagues from a different ethnic background.
Having an open conversation with the workers about their experiences, mutual support and working conditions proved to be a tough task. Since Ms Kavaji supervised my every attempt at a discussion, the employees clearly hesitated to utter anything but praise for the company.
Doris, Jennifer and Anna work together and appreciate each other’s efforts: “We are friends and every day we eat together”, the three women tell me. Although most of the time they communicate in English, Doris and other Maltese colleagues have taught the Filipinas a few Maltese words. “For me, everybody is the same”, Doris replies to my question on whether or not she feels comfortable to cooperate with persons from so many different countries.
Next, I ask the employees about a trade union membership. The answer is yes—all of OzoGroup’s personnel are members of the General Workers’ Union. “And what if they decide to strike?” I turn to Tatjana. Once again, she seems taken aback by my question: “They never wanted to strike! Why would they do that? They earn more than a minimum wage!” To demand higher wages, I utter, underlining that strikes are a tried and tested method of lobbying for better working conditions and that unions indeed have an upper hand in collective bargaining.
“Why would they strike? They earn more than a minimum wage!”
“Obviously, we have a collective agreement with the union”, interjects Wesley Zammit, General Manager of OzoMalta. “If we do not abide by its conditions, the union would call for a strike, but I can assure you this would never happen”, he says with a smile. Tatjana nods with satisfaction: “I do not see any signs of a revolution behind the door.”
My ‘inspection’ at the company comes to an end. On my way out, I pass by an international team of construction workers plastering the walls. In their own words, the Romanian, Serbian, Macedonian and Ghanian all work perfectly fine together. “Ghana is the best!” a worker from Romania laughs, teasing his African colleague.
Low wages? Blame It on Employers … and Unions!
The case of OzoGroup is a stark example of how elusive a division between a Maltese and a foreigner truly is: both the managerial and the regular employees seem to work well in multi-ethnic teams. Yet, a division between labourers and managers is profound and undeniable.
Although I did not succeed in my original plan to discuss the matters of mutual support and solidarity with workers, the visit to the company was nevertheless fruitful. It clarified that the private sector employer does indeed treat its workers as mere tools, expecting immense gratitude for the poor—slightly above the minimum—remuneration.
Centuries of capitalism should have taught us that private employers prioritise profit above workers’ wellbeing. It goes without saying that no employer would raise wages unless they are pressed to. Moreover, employers continuously undermine workers’ solidarity by promoting a select few, thus encouraging competition between them.
The way to secure a better pay is at hand, however. Since all of OzoGroup’s two thousand employees—Maltese and foreign—are unionised, the General Workers’ Union could oblige the employer to pay higher salaries. It could resort to the tried and tested means of collective bargaining, such as calling for a strike. Undoubtedly, the striking service workers would make a much greater impact on hoteliers’ and restaurateurs’ decision than a polite campaign for a higher minimum wage that the union is running on social media.
Since all of OzoGroup’s two thousand employees—Maltese and foreign—are unionised, the General Workers’ Union could oblige the employer to pay higher salaries.
Clearly, workers—Maltese and foreign—are sacrificing their wellbeing and quality of life on the altar of Malta’s economic miracle. Higher wages, the business lobby cautions, would necessarily hammer the economic growth and drive the country into disarray. The role of trade unions, however, is to defend workers’ rights and wellbeing—and not growth which preys on their efforts.
Unfortunately, trade unions are another culprit of this plight. With their strong affiliation with either Labour or Nationalist Party—which are competing for the affection of tycoons and smaller enterprises alike—both the General Workers’ Union and the UHM seem to be entirely complacent with brazen exploitation, thus serving the corporate interests way better than defending workers’ rights.