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Network News • 10-08-2021

Delta variant and workers’ shortage

Author: George Mangion
Published on The Independent – 10 August 2021

The euphoric smile on Prime Minister Robert Abela lingered during a presentation to the Party-faithful declaring pompously that the number of people registered as unemployed has fallen to record lows.

Abela quoted the numbers from JobsPlus. He trumpeted the news about a drop of those registering for work - standing at just 1,600. Abela took over as prime minister following the abrupt resignation of Joseph Muscat and shortly after the start of his tenure, he was facing the start of an unprecedented pandemic, now exacerbated with a perceived shortage of workers.

Many hopes were raised about the return to normality and the gallant opening of the ports for travellers on 1 June expecting a steady flow will resume. The government extended the furlough scheme to the end of the year with a full supplement for those firms registering a 55% drop in revenue with a tapering of subsidies for the rest.

Many thought that normality will grace our shores this summer and the fledging hospitality sector will bounce into action. Sadly, it looks like we are still not back to any normal as Covid rages on, developing ever more deadly variants. We have an invasion of the Delta strain now, leaving the road wide open to others to follow. The Delta variant is more transmissible than the pathogens that cause SARS, Ebola and smallpox, and as easily spread as chickenpox, according to an internal US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention presentation reported by The New York Times.

More ghastly news followed from the French government's top advisor on Covid-19 as he recently warned that a new variant of the disease would "probably" emerge in the winter months. The infectious diseases specialist urged the French people to return to social distancing and mask-wearing and said a "return to normal" would probably be in 2022 or 2023.

This does not bode well to solve the emerging problem of workers' shortage. While we remind ourselves of the success reached last year by China to combat the spread of the virus yet now it has not escaped the scathing effect of the Delta menace. Last week, millions of people were confined to their homes in China as the country tried to contain its largest Coronavirus outbreak in months including seven positive tests found in Wuhan, where the virus first emerged in late 2019. China reported that the fast-spreading Delta variant reached over 20 cities in more than a dozen provinces.

Typically, we note, how in the tourist destination of Zhangjiajie, an outbreak spread last month among theatre patrons who then brought the virus back to their homes around the country. It is lamentable how such a scenic spot as Zhangjiajie has recently locked down all 1.5 million residents whereas Beijing has blocked tourists from entering the capital during the peak summer holiday travel season.

Upon happy reflection, at the start of the national holiday of Sta Marija, there is a rush to invade the newly upgraded beach resort at Marsalforn in Gozo. Locals feel that as foreign travel is problematic, then the alternative to staying locked at home during this summer is booking a short sojourn at a farmhouse with a pool in Gozo. This should do the trick of relaxing from the chaotic life on the main island. All the while, as Malta warily opened to tourists in June, it cautiously started to notice new waves of infections rearing their heads.

Moving on, let us tackle the next topic concerning the mystery of workers' shortages which has suddenly dawned on us. Reflecting how successfully most white-collar staff retreated home to work online, this led to the clocking of long hours, taking meetings on Zoom or Teams and keeping the cats fed - all the while finding time to take children to summer school. The public sector had reported good progress by its online workers to meet daily exigencies and most worked diligently.

The fly in the ointment since the start of the tourist season is the sudden emergence of the riddle of missing workers. A survey of the Malta Chamber of Commerce highlighted that 77% of businesses reported having trouble finding workers, of varying skills, with operations being negatively affected as a result. The media is full of articles commenting on this phenomenon. While Malta Enterprise boasts of having saved the jobs of over 100,000 workers (apart from 62k working for the state) yet the sudden disappearance of workers is an enigma. Some blame our cavalier way of shedding foreign workers at the start of the pandemic.

Most have not returned. Commentators point to the scarcity of workers exacerbated by the dilemma of testing unvaccinated workers as a precaution prior to entering sanitized factory/office premises. To start with, one heeds the caution of the Malta Employers' Association advocating that employers protect their staff and the public by encouraging vaccination or tests.

Perhaps this may lead to the quarantine of more workers and extended absence away from work. However, one would not expect any undue shortage after the millions spent on a Covid wage supplement that helped part-finance wages of workers at businesses forced to shut or slow down due to the pandemic. The problem is not endemic to Malta only as in the UK this shortage is also prevalent.

There is a dilemma arising in the claim presented to the government by the hotel lobby group - MHRA. It requests tax-free concessions for hotel workers (particularly on overtime) to render the industry more attractive for employees. The idea was criticised by the Greens saying that an over-investment in the hotel sector takes the form of constant increases in the supply of mediocre establishments and services, overcrowding in tourist hotspots. Sadly, the feast of Sta Marija will this year be celebrated with subdued aplomb as tourists have stayed away having heeded our red classification and the resurgence of the Delta curse, which is slowly making its way in higher reported cases.

A blessing would be the return of normality, where more foreign workers return to roost and solve our acute shortage.

Author: George Mangion
Published on The Independent – 10 August 2021
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