‘Low unemployment does not mean adequate wages’ – Malta Independent interview with Tonio Fenech for Catholic Voices Malta

by Kevin Schembri Orland for Malta Independent , Monday, 4 March 2019,

Former Finance Minister Tonio Fenech has issued a warning about Malta’s current economic boom, highlighting that the economy needs better management as while the country registers positive economic growth, a number of negative impacts are also visible and growing.

Recently Fenech, through the group Catholic Voices Malta, highlighted certain concerns about the Maltese economy. Responding to news reports regarding the importation of workers from Turkey to work on construction projects, Fenech asked: “Why are we over-building our country in the name of economic growth and job creation. We are building mega high quality projects as though all the rich people in the world will come to live in Malta, while causing shortages in the housing market that caters for lower to medium income families and first time buyers making prices unaffordable – and the jobs created for whom? Foreign workers paid €800 per month?”

Talking to The Malta Independent on Sunday, Fenech questioned what the impact of Malta’s current economic reality is, which, while having positives such as economic growth, is also having negative impacts.

“Unfortunately, in my opinion, what we are seeing today is an economy growing from sectors which, in themselves, over-expose the country to other pressures. Development was always a component in the country’s economic development. However, injecting a significant pipeline of large projects into the economy which in itself creates economic growth – as construction alone creates such growth – one needs to question what impact this will leave on the economy at large. In order to sustain the economic growth we are seeing in terms of construction, we are simply increasing significant pressure on the need to import labour. We are solving the problem of building all these projects by importing labour which is evidently being brought in at very cheap rates.”

He said that when importing cheap labour to sustain economic growth, in terms of the theory of supply and demand, if supply is meeting demand at a low price, then these low wage levels become the benchmark for the rest of the economy. He said that Maltese workers who aspired to have a better a wage while working in the construction sector are having their ambitions frustrated, “as they will be told they are not needed as workers paid €800 a month could be brought in from abroad to carry out the same work”.

He said that many question why they do not see Maltese working in jobs like construction or in the restaurant industry. “The only reason is that this demand is being satisfied by cheap labour imported from abroad, and the Maltese, aspiring for a better quality of life would most likely be paid even lower than they used to be in those same jobs.”

So in reality, who is benefiting from this economic growth? The country’s economic strategy should have Maltese families as its core focus; in reality, it is not benefiting Maltese workers, but only benefiting the major companies undertaking these major projects, he said.

A second major impact in relation to this reality is the housing required to support imported labour, he said.

“This is a complex situation as we have these mega projects being constructed, not for the average income families, but for foreigners able to purchase or rent at substantially high prices in five-star locations.”

He said that most people coming to Malta for work look to live in more reasonable priced housing. He said he is not just referring to construction workers, but also the much higher paid sectors like the online gaming industry. “We’ve even seen comments from companies in the online gaming sector that the rents are becoming so high that employees they try to bring to Malta are finding it unaffordable. Now everyone knows that the online gaming industry pays good wages. So if these people being paid good wages cannot the rent prices in Malta, what about the families who do not work in the gaming sector?”

“Does this mean we are xenophobic and that we don’t want foreigners? No it doesn’t, any economy needs an element of foreign workers, but when one looks at how an economy evolves, and if the primary purpose is the wellbeing of Maltese families, then we should not take economic measures which overheat the economy and create social problems to families . An economy requires pacing.”

“We are not seeing the pacing of projects and it seems that the authorities have decided to give blanket approvals to massive projects, all coming up at the same time, which in itself is overheating the situation,” he argued.
Asked whether, theoretically, Maltese would go for more well-paid jobs, he said he hopes they will be able to find such jobs, but the rates of say early school leavers is still an issue. “The unemployment rate is low but this does not mean that the level of wages workers are paid is adequate. Unfortunately, with the pricy rise in the property market, people with an average wage are finding it difficult to buy. Even rents are very high. When you talk about paying €1,000 a month for a decent apartment… how many people earn €20,000 to €24,000 a year? There are also many people buying property to rent, and this is also creating an artificial demand. People think that as many foreign workers are coming to Malta, they purchase a property, fix it up and rent it. But this is only sustainable as long as more and more foreign workers continue to come to the islands.” He questioned whether the country’s infrastructure could handle this, and highlighted the environmental impacts such a situation could create.

“At the moment we are attracting a lot of business in the online gaming industry, in blockchain and Fintech, which is all well and good, but they are very volatile industries.”

Asked what could be done in order to minimise the issues he mentioned and the negative impact of the current economic boom, he said there are measures which can be taken, like pacing the projects approval process.
He said that, in terms of the number of foreign workers, the government needs to study the situation in order to ensure that this policy is not having a counter negative impact on housing markets, unreasonable low wage pressures and rights.

“The Prime Minister had said that we need this in order to sustain pensions, but I question this argument as the current party in government, when they were in Opposition, used to say there was no pension issue. So why is this argument being thrown at us as the reason to accept this economic strategy?”

If one looks at what other countries did when it came to importing labour, they were more restrictive, he said. “First of all we have opened our doors to anyone in the world when we are already in the EU. Obviously, contractors would prefer to bring in workers from outside the EU as wages would be lower. If you leave it in the hands of developers and the business community, they will go for the cheapest option as their motivation is, obviously, to maximise profits. That is why we need a government that will balance the drive for profits with other social aspects that meet our economy.
“In reality, with the present economic growth rates wages should also be increasing more meaningfully, because theoretically increased wage demands are met. This is not happening because in terms of cheap labour the sky seems to be the limit, so the demand and supply is distorted. You cannot have an income policy giving a €1 increase per week increase over three years beyond the COLA.”

The benefits of the economy need to be shared and the pressures managed. Even in terms of the number and size of projects we approve each year, they need to be seen in the context of the wider impact on society, Fenech explains. “This is also in the interest of all the developers as at some point supply and demand will kick in, and, if the demand for such apartments does not meet a situation of over-supply, there could be a significant impact. Are we making the mistakes of the countries that crashed before us?”

If you overheat an economy, you could create income disparities and inflation which does not match wage increases, meaning that people effectively become poorer, and that is a problem the property situation is creating, he said. “Who is addressing the issues of medium-income families who cannot afford purchasing their own home? We need affordable housing for people who used to, traditionally, afford such housing. Home ownership needs to remain at the centre of public policy”


Press Release: Responsibility, Accountability and Transparency, making the Church the safe place it should be

20th February 2019

Responsibility, Accountability and Transparency – making the Church the safe place it should be

The “Protection of Minors in the Church” Meeting of Bishops, which will take place in the Vatican, between 21 and 24 February 2019.

Faced with widespread and growing discomfort with revelations of very serious cases of sexual abuse involving members of the clergy, Pope Francis has called a 3-day meeting in the Vatican for Bishops that starts tomorrow the 21st February, 2019. The meeting will discuss the ‘The Protection of Minors in the Church’. The Pope has summoned the highest representatives of the Catholic Church from around the world to give a united response at the universal level. The entire Church must choose to live in solidarity, above all with the victims, with their families and with the ecclesial communities wounded by the scandals. As the Pope has written, ‘If one member suffers, all the members suffer together’. (1 Cor 12:26).

The Church is seeking to send a clear message of its commitment to protect minors, and that this has to be done in a clear and effective manner by the entire community, starting with those in the highest positions of responsibility. More recently, other forms of abuse are coming to light, but all are rooted in the same culture of secrecy, abuse of conscience and abuse of power that are the cancer of clericalism that Pope Francis condemned in his Letter to the People of God issued in August 2018. In it he stated categorically: “to say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to clericalism.” Pope Francis has concretely shown his zero tolerance for abuse by even those in the highest ranks within the Church, most recently by defrocking the ex-Cardinal McCarrick.

Indeed, the theme of the meeting starting tomorrow: ‘Responsibility, Accountability and Transparency’ indicates that the main purpose of the meeting is not to create new procedures, but to undertake a fundamental reform of the quality of leadership in the Church through an internal conversion. In his Angelus address on Sunday, Pope Francis asked Catholics to pray for the meeting which he described as “a powerful gesture of pastoral responsibility in the face of an urgent challenge of our time.”

The three days of discussion will be devoted to a specific topic: “Responsibility, Accountability, and Transparency”. The 190 participants present in the Vatican Synod Hall will hear three reports a day, three of these by women, and all nine interventions will be followed by a question and answer session. Members of the Organizing Committee will also meet privately with representatives of the victims and survivors’ associations. There will be testimonies from survivors and moments of prayer, at the beginning and end of each day. Pope Francis will open the Meeting with an introductory speech on Thursday morning, and close it on Sunday with a discourse after Mass. A Penitential Liturgy will take place on Saturday afternoon, and will be broadcast live.

Catholic Voices Malta joins Catholic Voices International and indeed, the Universal Church and all people of good will in praying for Pope Francis, our Archbishop Scicluna who is in the team leading the meeting, and all the participating Bishops. This great moment of trail for the Church can be a turning point for its purification.

Information on the Meeting
The official website of the “Protection of Minors in the Church” Meeting is www.pbc2019.org and will remain active even after the Meeting is over, as a “tool for developing future initiatives”.

For any questions, information or follow up you can also contact info@catholicvoices.mt

The Letter to the People of God by Pope Francis can be found: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/letters/2018/documents/papa-francesco_20180820_lettera-popolo-didio.html

Reality check for low Sunday Mass attendance. Newsbook Blogg Tonio Fenech

During the past two weeks much has been written about the phenomena of low Sunday mass attendance, what this implies, and possibly who’s to blame. The Humanitarian Association was quick to claim victory for secularism and asserting that Malta is no longer a Catholic country.

While the actions of those who live the Catholic faith are more important that the numbers that go to Church, a proper look at the figures shows a reality quite different of what has been portrayed in general.

The Maltese Archdiocese for the first time, commissioned a Survey to accompany the Census. Some were confused by this and questioned the need. I thought it was well thought. The Census listened to the people coming to Church, the survey sought to listen to the people not coming to Church, equally or possible more important to understand.

The survey carried out by Misco in fact makes some interesting reading. 95% believe in God, something good, showing people still have an openness to the spiritual reality. 92% believe they are Catholic, 7% do not follow any religion while 1% adhere to some other religion. If 95% claim to believe in God, then out of the 7% that do not follow any religion, 1/3 still believe in God, i.e. only 5% of the Maltese population is either atheist or agnostic.

Interestingly these results are not very far from a survey carried out by Malta Today around March 2018, that also found that 93.9% of the Maltese population identified themselves as Catholics. The survey then had also found that 88.8% were against the removal from the Constitution of Catholicism as Malta’s official religion and an even stronger majority was against the removal of the crucifix from public buildings such as schools.

Focusing again on the more recent Misco survey, 93% claim that religion is important to them (66% claiming very important), even if simple maths tells us that not all of these attend mass every Sunday with some actually not attending at all.

Evidently the Maltese Church needs some sole searching to understand why so many believe in God, feel Catholic, see their faith as something important, but do not find Sunday mass as relevant in their journey of faith.

Most Catholics find themselves somewhere in between two extremes. Those who for them Sunday mass observance is the start and end of what it means to be a Catholic, just like ticking the box, or having a membership card, to the other extreme, where I noted many online individual comments to these stories seem to come from, that to be a good Catholic one does not have to go to Church. Only 37% state that one must follow a religion if one believes in God, which possibly explains why the census found that only around 40% attended Sunday Mass on census day.

The survey on the other hand also found that 74% actually go to mass at least once a month, with 50% of the respondents claiming to have attended mass the previous Sunday. Here we find a discrepancy between the census and the survey. The census counted 40% while the survey measured 50%. The survey analysis seeks to explain this by making a mention that there is an element of social desirability bias, i.e. people reply what is expected from them as “good” behaviour. While this may be so, there may be a different reason like people who in a month go to Sunday mass more frequency then once, but not necessarily every Sunday, feel justified to place themselves in the category of regular Church goers rather than occasional.

I also found it very strange that despite all that has been reported, officially by the Church, journalists and various commentators, one important figure seems to have been overlooked. 75% of the respondents claimed to pray daily, 44% of these actually claiming to pray several times a day. This is real hope for our nation.

Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium starts his Apostolic Exhortation with a fundamental invitation to encounter Jesus in prayer, when he states “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”. The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms.

Professor Mark Anthony Falzon, an anthropologist, in his observations to the Malta Independent of the 3rd February 2019 enforces the understanding that what we are seeing is no necessarily a decline in religious belief but rather a transformation. I quote, “A caveat is in order here, because while that for Sunday Mass attendance is a relatively straightforward statistic which measures practice (you either go or don’t), that for belief in God is an infinitely more complicated one.” In fact, Professor Falzon claims that we are not looking at a decline in religious belief, but rather a change in what people do with their beliefs – a change in religious practice.

This transformation is understandable within a society which is becoming more individualistic, self-sufficient and too busy, losing touch with the beauty of being family, community and shifting towards social media friends, followers and likes.

So why are people not attending? 20% because they do not agree with what the Church or what the priest say, 12% laziness, 12% lack of time, 10% they see Mass not relevant and 10% simply do not they like going to Church.

Indeed 80% have nothing against the Church by are simply not motivated, they are waiting for the Church to give them a reason to go beyond mere rules of observance. They are looking for meaning, a reason to go, in day which like air above the surface of the water, they struggled to reach after a week drowned in the busyness of work, family life, commitments and whatever, and the last thing they want to go to is a place where they sit, detached from those around them, listening to a ritual of prayers and a homily which they struggle or are to sleepy to follow after a Saturday late night (or early morning for some).

Interestingly in the case of the 16 to 24-years age group, there is even more hope and room for outreach then society wants to make us believe.

Disagreement with the Church or the priest is far less significant at 5%, and the real reason is lack of time at 27% and laziness at 22%, if only as parents they find some sort of encouragement, and in the Church provides them the attention, friendships, fun and answers they look for. This should be what mass is all about after all, a meaningful community of friends, in celebration mode, sharing and expressing a joy that comes from understanding what Jesus did and what Jesus still does for us.

I close with the words of Pope Francis in the more recent Apostolic Exhortation Gaudate et Exsultate, where he says, “Far from being timid, morose, acerbic or melancholy, or putting on a dreary face, the saints are joyful and full of good humour. Though completely realistic, they radiate a positive and hopeful spirit. The Christian life is “joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17), for “the necessary result of the love of charity is joy; since every lover rejoices at being united to the beloved… the effect of charity is joy”. Having received the beautiful gift of God’s word, we embrace it “in much affliction, with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 1:6). If we allow the Lord to draw us out of our shell and change our lives, then we can do as Saint Paul tells us: “Rejoice in the Lord always; I say it again, rejoice!” (Phil 4:4).

This is what mass should be all about. Then people will come.

Tonio Fenech is a member of Catholic Voices Malta

This article appeared on Tonio Fenech’s Blogg on Newsbook on the 6th February 2019 https://www.newsbook.com.mt/blogg/2019/02/06/reality-check-for-low-sunday-mass-attendance/?lang=en

‘Nibnu Darna fuq il-Blat’ Rents, affordability and poverty Catholic Voices Malta Colloquium 17th November 2018

Housing, affordability and poverty are becoming more pressing issues, with increasing signs that Malta’s economy is growing asymmetrically. As a result, many families are being marginalised and impoverished because they cannot afford appropriate housing that allows them to live with dignity. This is not only true for vulnerable family units, but also for young couples planning to form new families.

Catholic Voices Malta organised its first public seminar on this topic. This took the form of a Colloquium that will focused on the effect the rapid rise in housing prices and the impact these are having on social cohesion, social justice and families in Malta.

The Colloqium provided the space for a heathy debate amongst those whose interest is to alleviate the difficulties of families living on the margins of society because of lack of provision of social housing the rapid rise in the cost of affordable housing.

Now you can watch all the event on our website and YouTube channel.