Covid-19’s impact on Malta’s workforce and the future of remote working
, Covid-19’s impact on Malta’s workforce and the future of remote working


Kevin Schembri Orland

Sunday, 2 May 2021, 08:00
Last update: about 33 minutes ago

A hybrid system – Marisa Xuereb, President of the Chamber of Commerce

When the pandemic struck, many businesses that would never have considered teleworking realised that the only way to keep operating was to actually provide remote work arrangements, Marisa Xuereb, President of the Chamber of Commerce told The Malta Independent.

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“This has changed the way we look at the employer-employee relationship. It is much more based on trust now. It has also changed the way we think about a job.”

She explained that in the past, one of the most defining factors of a job was the working hours, starting at a specific time and ending at a specific time. “With remote working arrangements, it is a matter of how much a person is able to deliver. So there are probably people who work from home and sit at their desk for 6 instead of 8 hours and produce the same amount of work. Others might take ten hours to produce the same amount they used to because, for example, they might have been supervising children at the same time.”

While in the beginning many were eager to work from home if they were able to, as it was a new experience, after a few months people realised that there is a very important social aspect to work, she explained. “Those who did not have young children to take care of at home were very eager to return to their places of work as soon as they could. So it is likely that the future will see the use of a hybrid system, where possible.”

She stressed that not all jobs can be done remotely. “A large portion of our workers, those in manufacturing, those in face-to-face customer service jobs, retail, people in healthcare, construction, and infrastructure cannot work from home. So when we speak about working from home we are referring to a relatively small percentage of the workforce who can do it while not impacting performance. For those who can do it, we will probably see the development of a hybrid model that could eventually lead to different kinds of work contracts. For example, because an employee is working remotely, they might not necessarily need to live in the country of work.”

She added that remote working has made more resources available, as people who would otherwise not be able to work fixed hours are able to work. The possibility of remote working will contribute to an increased rate of female participation in the workforce going forward, she said.

As for what she thinks will happen with remote working in the future, she believes that employers will set minimum contact hours, where generally employees who work remotely would need to go into the office three times a week for example. “When people get out of the loop of belonging to a workplace, to a community of employees, they will suffer in the long run in terms of their performance, how they relate to the vision of the company and in their personal relationship with colleagues.”

 

Covid impacted workers on four levels – UHM – Voice of the Workers CEO Josef Vella

CEO of the UHM – Voice of the Workers Josef Vella explained that workers have been affected by Covid-19 on four different levels – in their working conditions, economically, psychologically and socially.

In terms of working conditions, many have had to make the move to remote working or teleworking, while some took pay cuts and others began working four-day weeks, losing overtime, he said.

Economically, people would have had to make adjustments to the way they live, he said. “Psychologically, the virus has impacted stress levels and even caused depression. Socially, people have not been able to enjoy the forms of entertainment they used to, and while remote working has generally been viewed positively, it might not be the case for some who have ended up working longer hours than they would have in the office.”

While the future is still relatively uncertain, many believe that remote working and teleworking are here to stay in some shape or form, he explained. Asked whether he foresees a situation where some companies that currently offer remote or teleworking will ban it for jobs which could otherwise be done remotely in the future once the pandemic passes, he said that such a move would be ‘mismanagement’.

“As long as there is productivity, why not allow it?”

He believes that the realisation of the use of remote working and teleworking will likely result in some companies revisiting their strategies, where a hybrid model will be found if remote working is possible in such jobs. “We saw this happening even before the pandemic and it worked well, having employees coming in to work at the office on a schedule. You wouldn’t want to work from home all the time and never go in to the office, as there are also aspects of team building and team spirit which come into it as well.”

“The best solution, I think, is finding a balance between remote working and being physically at the office.”

As for the Covid impact on working conditions, he was asked whether he could foresee any issues down the line between companies and employees. Vella expressed some concern that some companies might try to take advantage of the situation in the future.

“Even when the pandemic passes, we will definitely see some workplaces that would keep using the pandemic excuse to say that they would not be in a position to give certain benefits, or keep certain restrictions on working conditions in place. In fact, we are already seeing this today. There are companies that still want to make certain Covid arrangements, reduce certain working conditions for workers when they, in truth, are taking all the government support. If they are taking all the government support, why are they trying to deny working conditions to their employees?”

“It is a reality today and there are unions that would not allow it, but imagine what would happen in places where there is no union.”

 

2021 will not be a profitable year for many businesses – Joseph Farrugia, Director General of the Malta Employers’ Association

2021 will not be a profitable year for many businesses, Joseph Farrugia, Director General of the Malta Employers’ Association, told The Malta Independent

Asked how he sees the impact of Covid-19 on workers, he said that the situation has been very challenging.

“Although there are quite a few whose conditions of employment were not affected during the pandemic, there are many others who ended up with less take-home pay or loss of overtime. Some have even lost their jobs. It has been quite a turbulent time for employees.”

He explained that this is also being reflected on the employers’ side too. “When one side gains, so does the other, but when there are situations like the one we are in now, everyone suffers.”

Looking ahead a year or two down the line, he expects that the global economy will rebound from this crisis. “Many countries are expecting an economic recovery, but the recovery will not be at the same pace for all sectors. For a country like Malta, with a heavy dependence on tourism, it remains to be seen how fast we can manage to attract tourists in the same volume we had back in 2019. I believe it may take some time, maybe a couple of years, until we get back to where we were pre-Covid.”

He said that this is also a time to reflect, to see whether we, as a country, want to go back to the pre-Covid situation. “For example, when speaking about tourism, we could adopt a strategy whereby we would go after quality tourists rather than focus on quantity, but then of course you need to have the corresponding infrastructure and strategy to be able to enact a plan to move in that direction.”

Turning to work organisation, and the changes that have been seen during the pandemic, he said that many companies had to resort to some sort of remote working, “although I stress that remote working is not the solution to everything. It is estimated that only 25% of jobs can be done remotely. Therefore one cannot assume that it is something that can be applied in all situations and to all circumstances.”

“The trend started years before Covid, whereby some companies were switching to a hybrid system of remote working.” 

One expects this trend to continue, he added. “You may have some companies that will reduce the amount of remote working hours allowed once there is no danger of contamination at the workplace, but I believe that others will retain a good element of teleworking if applied properly, even as a means of attracting people to work for them.”

He was asked about the change in working conditions due to Covid-19 such as pay cuts and shorter working weeks for some, whether he saw any clashes between unions and employers over this issue and whether he believes this situation will last long.

“Industrial relations have been very positive throughout the crisis and we did not hear of many clashes between unions and employers. I believe everyone recognised the need to work together and the solutions were not easy – at times a reduced working week for example, was unavoidable. There was quite a lot of collaboration between the social partners in this respect.”

As for how long the situation will last, he believes that it would vary between sectors, “but on the whole, this year will not be a good year for Malta as the government still has to fork out assistance to businesses. Wages are not the only cost for businesses. The wage supplement is welcome, as are the other benefits, but it does not mean businesses did not operate at a loss. Many of them made huge losses last year, and it will probably be the same this year, although perhaps not to the same extent as 2020. It will not be a profitable year for many businesses.”

 

Impact depends on a number of factors – Secretary General of the General Workers’ Union Josef Bugeja

The impact of the pandemic on workers over the next year or two will depend on a number of factors, Secretary General of the General Workers’ Union Josef Bugeja said, mainly depending on what Malta’s recovery from the pandemic will look like.

He said that if Malta experiences a strong recovery moving towards 2018 and 2019 levels that would be one thing, but if it would be a slow recovery, that would be another.

He said that during the 2008 financial crisis, Malta did not have the level of debt other countries had and was financially strong. But tourists that used to come to Malta did not have the money to spend. “So it depends on a lot of factors.”

He questioned whether, as a country, we would revert back to the old world of work or if we will move forward in a new way, referring to people working virtually and remotely where possible.

He mentioned that remote working and teleworking bring their own challenges. “I might not have to deal with problems such as lack of parking spaces for employees, but I would need to ensure that the rights and benefits workers had at the workplace are translated to the new methods of work. If a worker is working from home, I would need to see that the work the employee is producing is still at par, that the worker works 40 hours a week and that if the worker exceeds that amount, then the worker is paid overtime.”

He spoke of the gig economy, in particular, about certain car ride services and delivery services. Some “literally don’t have a wage, but rather work on commission.” He said that the GWU is fighting to ensure that these workers will be protected and for employment laws to apply to them.

Asked about working conditions, he said that the wage supplement helped a lot. He said that when the original agreement was made, the workers were to have their pay slightly reduced, the government would pay the wage supplement and the employer will fork out €400.

“Where we were the recognised union we agreed with the employers and over time things reverted back to what they were, but there were a number of employers where we were not the recognised union, where the employers did not fork out the €400, and so the employee ended up on €800 pay.”

“There were companies that had resorted to four-day weeks, because outside demand for production reduced and there were instances where raw materials were not arriving due to shipments stopping or production abroad coming to a halt.”

“Aside from the hospitality sector, I don’t think we have any places of work still on 4-day weeks. What is still impacted is overtime.” Part-time work might also be impacted, he said.

He also stressed the impact of the pandemic, in particular the uncertainty it has created, on people’s mental wellbeing.

 

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