No matter how rich a country is, there will always be social problems – Falzon
In previous years, one has undoubtedly been exposed to statistics that show a steady decline in the number of people who are unemployed, dependent on social benefits and also at risk of poverty.
The Malta Independent interviewed Social Justice Minister Michael Falzon on Sunday, who gave his opinion on what his ministry has done, current plans and where the government is heading through the upcoming elections.
Before the start of the pandemic, the NGO Caritas published an in-depth study on people at risk of poverty or severe material deprivation. One of the findings of the study was that a couple who both worked minimum wage and had two children would not be able to meet day-to-day expenses.
Asked for a comment on the matter, Falzon said that “it would be presumptuous to think that this government, let alone any government, can solve the problems once and for all. We have to be realistic and, while realizing that a lot has been done in previous years, there is still a lot to do.
Falzon also presented statistics that show the difference of nine years in the social sector. “Nine years ago, 43,000 people were at risk of severe material deprivation while today there are around 16,000 people. That doesn’t mean we’ve done enough. Every person left at risk is a concern for the state.
“No matter how wealthy a country’s economy is, there will always be issues of people not being reached by the wealth generated by the country. I am not judging anyone, but it is our duty to help these people.
At the end of the Caritas study, there were a number of recommendations for the social sector to implement. Falzon confirmed that many of these recommendations have been implemented in the 2022 budget.
Another statistic from the Caritas study also shows that a significant number of Maltese residents cannot financially cope with unexpected expenses they might face.
In response to this, Falzon said that while these scenarios are a “what if” situation, “we had plans in place in the previous budget to anticipate these what-if situations.”
“Today we are also witnessing a change in the job market. It helps eradicate those situations with consistent pay per work,” Falzon said. “Nine years ago, 4,300 people depended on unemployment benefit, whereas today we are at 400 people. This is a reduction of 91%”.
Although the number has dwindled, Falzon said that even if one person remains, “they will still demand that we do our duty as their representatives.”
Another phenomenon that has happened in Malta is the huge investment going on in many infrastructure projects around the island. This has raised questions about why similar investments have not been made to tackle key issues such as poverty and social exclusion.
Falzon said the government is constantly trying to bring the numbers down, especially when it comes to people at risk of poverty. “Although people at risk of poverty are not at the end stage, we must be proactive in keeping them out of poverty.”
“While I agree that the materialistic value of infrastructure projects may seem to attract more investment, we are investing in people’s quality of life. This year, we are going to invest 1.1 billion euros in pensions alone, there are many more benefits to take into account.
Falzon was also asked about his thoughts on moving from a welfare directive to an education and development directive.
“Investment in our education sector must never stop. It is a fact that a person with a university education has a better chance of getting a better paying job. However, we cannot make the mistake of forgetting professional work and its importance to our society.
Falzon also mentioned the importance of qualification, retraining and professional training of various workers. “The pandemic has brought new realities to Malta, the fact is that the only constant is change and we must continue to change and improve every day.”
Programs such as making work pay and improving the well-being of people in general also contribute to the realization of this ideal.
Asked about the possibility of raising the minimum wage, Falzon said that although the minimum wage mechanism has been agreed upon for ages, discussions have begun to find a solution to today’s realities.
“We have already started to increase the minimum wage and have also introduced laws which state that after one year of working at minimum wage, your salary increases by €3 per week.
Falzon claimed that unemployment is no longer the top priority in Malta, “instead, we must now focus on the reward workers take home after a day’s work”.
On this, Falzon said that “the sun hasn’t started to shine under a Labor government, there were other administrations that have done good in this regard and we have to keep moving forward.”
Falzon said that throughout the next election campaign Labor will be committed to investing in people’s wellbeing. “We’re pushing for more quality time with families and when it comes to benefits, our intention is clear, we’re going to reinvest in people.”