The other side of low un­em­ploy­ment a cri­sis in the – pri­vate sec­tor

Busi­nesses hav­ing to look for third coun­try na­tion­als

Malta Independent - - FRONT PAGE - Kevin Schem­bri Or­land

Mal­tese pri­vate sec­tor en­ter­prises are cur­rently ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a hu­man re­sources cri­sis as a re­sult of the coun­try’s low un­em­ploy­ment num­bers, the GRTU Malta Cham­ber of SMEs CEO Abi­gail Mamo told The Malta In­de­pen­dent on Sun­day.

Ms Mamo stressed the dire sit­u­a­tion in which busi­nesses find them­selves, with some even hav­ing to re­sort to ‘off the books’ em­ploy­ment of third­coun­try na­tion­als, such as those who, for ex­am­ple, hold an Ital­ian work permit but not a Mal­tese one. In such cases, she ex­plained, the em­ploy­ers are hav­ing to put them­selves in a pre­car­i­ous po­si­tion as they pay their work­ers well above the min­i­mum wage any­way, but are them­selves legally ex­posed. “Busi­ness own­ers are ask­ing for these work­ers to be reg­u­larised or for help in find­ing em­ploy­ees”.

Un­for­tu­nately, she did not have any statis­tics avail­able, ex­plain­ing that as far as she knows, the only of­fi­cial statis­tics re­late to em­ploy­ment and un­em­ploy­ment, not to unfilled va­can­cies and these can be com­piled by Jobs+ as the na­tional em­ploy­ment agency, but then again they would only know about the va­can­cies no­ti­fied to them.

“This is, how­ever, a sig­nif­i­cant prob­lem, which we are fac­ing daily,” Ms Mamo said. She ex­plained that most of the peo­ple be­ing found to fill these jobs are third coun­try na­tion­als, yet this brings with it a spate of prob­lems.

“When look­ing for non-Mal­tese work­ers – given that the Mal­tese are not fill­ing lower-skilled po­si­tions – the next pref­er­ence for busi­nesses is EU na­tion­als, but not many are be­ing found, as EU na­tion­als can move around freely and tend to go to coun­tries which of­fer the best wages.”

With third-coun­try na­tion­als, en­ter­prises hit a bu­reau­cratic ob­sta­cle course, she said. “You need to deal with Iden­tity Malta as a main author­ity but the ap­pli­ca­tion is scru­ti­nised also by Jobs+ and the po­lice, who do their own checks. Qual­i­fi­ca­tions and work ex­pe­ri­ence also come into play, as the au­thor­i­ties will want to check these. Prob­lems arise when silly mis­takes on ap­pli­ca­tions oc­cur, which is quite of­ten, and per­mis­sion will not be given due to this. What we have done is cre­ate a con­tact point with each of the au­thor­i­ties and we fol­low the ap­pli­ca­tion on be­half of our mem­bers to try and fast-track the ap­pli­ca­tions. Then, if there is a silly rea­son for the ap­pli­ca­tion get­ting stuck, we push it for­ward. One ba­sic rea­son why ap­pli­ca­tions get blocked is be­cause em­ploy­ers are re­quired to ad­ver­tise a job in Malta first, which is ob­vi­ous, but some fail to do so.”

For each va­cancy they sub­mit, ad­verts have to be placed in news­pa­pers, and both the em­ploy­ers and the au­thor­i­ties know they will not find any­one lo­cally to fill the va­cancy. This is time-con­sum­ing and costly, es­pe­cially for em­ploy­ers who need many work­ers and have a high turnover.

“Busi­nesses have told me that they go to the Em­ploy­ment and Train­ing Com­mis­sion, who will not be able to find any­one to fill the po­si­tion, so why then are they obliged to ad­ver­tise it? They say that if they have al­ready gone to the ETC, isn’t that enough to show that they have ob­vi­ously al­ready looked lo­cally?”

It’s a com­bi­na­tion of the process be­ing overly bu­reau­cratic and things that are slightly use­less, pro­long­ing the process. The sit­u­a­tion be­came a se­ri­ous prob­lem around two years ago, and over the past year it has been ex­tremely bad, Ms Mamo said.

She told this news­room that the bureau­cracy in em­ploy­ing third­coun­try na­tion­als needs to be re­laxed. “We are not say­ing just bring any­one in, of course, but busi­nesses need a breather.

“There are cer­tain busi­nesses that don’t have the man­power to open new out­lets, even though they want to. Nowa­days, such ap­pli­ca­tions take months. Now, imag­ine you are run­ning a busi­ness, and se­ri­ously need more staff. You find some­one who wants to work and you need to ap­ply and spend months wait­ing to see if the ap­pli­ca­tion will even be ap­proved. These work­ers could find jobs else­where or leave the coun­try. The fact is that such ap­pli­ca­tions are still more likely to be re­fused than ap­proved.

“We went through a time where ev­ery third coun­try na­tional ap­pli­ca­tion was au­to­mat­i­cally re­fused. This changed af­ter a lot of pres­sure was made by the busi­ness com­mu­nity and the GRTU.”

Ms Mamo de­scribed the sit­u­a­tion as it was in the past, where peo­ple who wanted to work as clean­ers would not be re­quired to sub­mit any work ex­pe­ri­ence doc­u­ments. Some op­er­a­tors, how­ever, who were hav­ing prob­lems with the bu­reau­cratic process, had of­fi­cially em­ployed peo­ple as clean­ers who would re­ally be do­ing other work, be­cause the process was faster. This is il­le­gal, of course, and the au­thor­i­ties re­alised what was hap­pen­ing. But the way they tack­led the prob­lem was to re­quire the pre­sen­ta­tion of cre­den­tials even for jobs as clean­ers.

Turn­ing to man­age­ment level po­si­tions, sim­i­lar hu­man re­source prob­lems are be­ing ob­served. The GRTU CEO told this news­room that univer­sity stu­dents are be­ing ap­proached be­fore they grad­u­ate in or­der for them to take up jobs once they grad­u­ate. “This shows how bad the sit­u­a­tion is. When we were de­bat­ing our bud­getary pro­pos­als, we said that the hu­man re­sources as­pect is the big­gest chal­lenge fac­ing busi­nesses to­day.”

Asked whether busi­nesses have reached the sit­u­a­tion where some will have to close due to them be­ing un­able to find em­ploy­ees, she said that, luck­ily, that stage has not yet ar­rived. “The prob­lem fac­ing en­ter­prises is that, for ex­am­ple, they can­not ex­pand, and so whereas in the past they would have ten­dered for a con­tract, now they are un­able to do so.”

Asked whether some busi­nesses would have to close down if the sit­u­a­tion was still the same five years down the line, she said: “God for­bid that the sit­u­a­tion re­mains the same. What is cer­tain is that the coun­try will lose a lot in terms of taxes due to off-the-books em­ploy­ment and a con­tract­ing busi­ness sec­tor.”

Asked if she has any rec­om­men­da­tions, apart from re­lax­ing bureau­cracy, Ms Mamo said: “We told the gov­ern­ment that their re­spon­si­bil­ity does not stop with en­sur­ing low un­em­ploy­ment lev­els. Their job is to en­sure that the econ­omy grows and to find a way to make it eas­ier for busi­nesses to em­ploy peo­ple. We told the gov­ern­ment that it can help re­solve this is­sue more eas­ily than we can due to their deal­ings with for­eign gov­ern­ments and con­tacts with other na­tional em­ploy­ment agen­cies.

“The gov­ern­ment can and should en­cour­age busi­nesses to em­ploy hard-work­ing peo­ple that will prob­a­bly cause the least trou­ble. Imag­ine that you have a Mal­tese busi­ness and you have sought lo­cal em­ploy­ees but failed, sought EU em­ploy­ees and failed, where do you go next? What doors can you knock on?”

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Em­ployee Skills Sur­vey car­ried out dur­ing the first quar­ter of 2016, va­can­cies for craft and re­lated trade work­ers, pro­fes­sion­als, tech­ni­cians and ser­vice/sales work­ers take the long­est to fill, with re­spon­dents hav­ing at that time claim­ing that some of these po­si­tions take more than eight weeks to be filled.

Cross-sec­tor prob­lems

The re­sponses from some em­ploy­ers fit this par­tic­u­lar time frame, while oth­ers told this news­room that it takes much longer, as they are un­able to find ei­ther lo­cal or EU work­ers in Malta.

A source in the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try points out that the hours of work when it comes to pubs and restau­rants puts many Mal­tese off. He said that third-coun­try na­tion­als are usu­ally found do­ing such work, how­ever the process in­volved when it comes to hir­ing them is very long. He re­marked that the process ap­pears to take less time for hote­liers.

Restau­ra­teur Matthew Pace, manag­ing di­rec­tor of Un­cle Matt’s Kitchen, said that hu­man re­sources is cur­rently a ma­jor prob­lem in the restau­rant busi­ness. “It’s not fill­ing the post that’s the prob­lem, but rather the per­son you fill the post with. In the ser­vice in­dus­try, you need to of­fer good ser­vice con­sis­tently.”

He said that there are very few Mal­tese go­ing into the sec­tor, and hinted that the same can be said about EU na­tion­als in Malta. This, he ex­plained, is the re­sult of restau­ra­teurs hav­ing to look out­side the EU, men­tion­ing Ser­bia and other non-EU East­ern bloc coun­tries. The prob­lem here, he ex­plained, is the length of time it takes to process the visas and work per­mits for these for­eign na­tion­als; from his per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, the reg­is­tra­tion process takes on av­er­age around three or four months for a Ser­bian na­tional. Since busi­ness in Malta is do­ing well, he said, most Mal­tese look to other sec­tors for work.

He be­lieves that cer­tain EU coun­tries, where wages are lower, should be tar­geted to at­tract EU na­tion­als to Malta to help fill va­can­cies. The prob­lem is not just at ground level, he said, but also at man­age­rial level. “I’m work­ing on a project and want around eight out­lets, but I can’t find the right staff for the posts.”

A source within the be­spoke steel, glass and wood in­dus­tries is also ex­pe­ri­enc­ing prob­lems. “I was con­sid­er­ing ex­pand­ing my busi­ness as it has po­ten­tial, but I gave up around a year ago be­cause I couldn’t find staff. Ex­ist­ing em­ploy­ees know that em­ploy­ers are un­able to find work­ers and use this knowl­edge to get a bet­ter deal.

“There just aren’t any Mal­tese who want to work in this in­dus­try. I even went to a few Min­istries and asked them to help me find some­one to work for me. They would check their com­puter and give me a few names, but these peo­ple did not want to work any­where back then.”

He too com­plained about the length of time and the pro­ce­dure in­volved in bring­ing over third­coun­try na­tion­als, say­ing that it had taken him a year to bring over one for­eigner. He also spoke of other busi­nesses in Malta hav­ing to re­sort to em­ploy­ing peo­ple ‘off the books’ be­cause the pro­ce­dure takes so long.

“The gov­ern­ment truly has no idea how many peo­ple are be­ing em­ployed off the books in Malta.

We can’t keep on like this.”

He said that the gov­ern­ment should look into ways of mak­ing it eas­ier to bring over third-coun­try na­tion­als be­cause it is be­com­ing too hard to find Mal­tese and EU cit­i­zens with the skills-set for cer­tain sec­tors.

Mal­tese peo­ple who are be­ing trained in skills re­quired in his sec­tor, he said, tend to go and work on oil rigs. “An­other prob­lem is that you ac­cept a stu­dent from MCAST, train them, and then they leave you af­ter a year. It’s not worth it.”

He pointed out that when you are ten­der­ing for work, you do not do it for just one con­tract, you ap­ply for two or three. Then, if you are awarded more than one con­tract, you may well have to hire ad­di­tional peo­ple for that job. Once you have ac­tu­ally won the con­tract, you are given a com­ple­tion date and if you do not fin­ish the work by that date, you pay a daily fine. Due to the prob­lems in find­ing em­ploy­ees, some com­pa­nies have had to cut down on the num­ber of ten­ders they sub­mit.

This news­room also spoke to a high-end re­tailer who said that it is easy to find part-time em­ploy­ees, but not full-timers. Most em­ploy­ees are non-Mal­tese EU na­tion­als, or third-coun­try na­tion­als, she said, men­tion­ing the prob­lems in­volved in bring­ing third-coun­try na­tion­als to Malta. Asked how long it takes her com­pany to fill a va­cancy, she said that it can take up to three months, and at man­age­rial level the time re­quired is even longer. She also said that Sun­day trad­ing would make the sit­u­a­tion worse, as not many peo­ple would want to work on Sun­days and she is against the con­cept.

Even the pri­vate trans­port sec­tor is strug­gling to find em­ploy­ees. One pri­vate trans­port busi­ness owner said that the sit­u­a­tion has be­come so bad that com­pa­nies in this area have re­sorted to poach­ing driv­ers. The driv­ers, of course, use this to their ad­van­tage, be­cause if the boss does some­thing that up­sets them, they will just change com­pany, he said.

An­other is­sue, the pri­vate trans­port en­tre­pre­neur ex­plained, is that if they bring in peo­ple from out­side the EU to work as coach driv­ers, in ad­di­tion to a work permit and the usual pro­ce­dures, they are also re­quired to re­take their driv­ing test to ac­quire an EU driv­ing li­cence.

Manuel Az­zopardi, from Queens Dry clean­ers, said that Malta des­per­ately needs some form of train­ing fa­cil­ity in Malta, where po­ten­tial em­ploy­ees would un­dergo a course in sew­ing. He said that his type of busi­ness deals with wedding dresses, evening gowns, etc. “It’s hard to find lo­cal peo­ple to em­ploy, and so we bring in for­eign­ers, but they have no idea what to do. They try, but we don’t have the time to train them. “We fo­cus on do­mes­tic dry-clean­ing, and hon­estly we could do with two more em­ploy­ees, busi­ness is so good,” he said.

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