Dad, political sociologist, local councillor, drummer from Malta

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Discussing the bridge


Times of Malta, 28 August 2017

Would it not be great to walk from Sliema to Valletta on a pedestrian bridge? When I read about this proposal, I gave it an instinctive thumbs-up.
The proposal, by London-based celebrated architect Konrad Xuereb, is reportedly estimated to cost about €8 million and would link Tignè Point to the Valletta gun post. It would add another option for transport between the two localities.
If another proposal, this time by AX Holdings is approved, there would also be added transport options through a tunnel beneath Valletta, which connects Sliema to Cottonera by ferry.
Such multi-modal forms of connection are commonplace in many towns and cities across the world and they can offer practical solutions to combat Malta’s traffic challenges. Interestingly, this newspaper reports (August 23) that, about 60 years ago, a cable-car project was proposed across Marsamxett Harbour, from Sliema Ferries to Hastings Garden, in Valletta, with Manoel Island in between. As we know, this project never took off.
But let’s go back to the future.
Architect Xuereb is arguing that his 300-metre-long bridge proposal will “mean less pollution, fewer people using their cars and [have a] long-term benefit for Valletta, which will feel more connected to places in Sliema”.
Let us assume the government or local councils are interested in developing this public project, what should be the way forward? I would argue for a mix of public consultation and evidence-based policymaking.
In the first instance, funding possibilities would have to be sought for. Given that the government is committed to upgrade Malta’s road network over a seven-year period, would a pedestrian bridge fit within this remit? I think it should, especially when Malta is committed to develop and encourage modal shifts towards alternative forms of transport.
Alternatively, the government can vote specific capital funding or apply for EU funds, the latter also being possible through local council involvement. In the previous legislature, the government spending on capital projects was relaxed, so perhaps this time around the trend can be shifted in a sustainable manner.
Cost-benefit analyses should also be commissioned to verify investment potential of the project, given possible savings elsewhere.
What about the technicalities of the project? Environmental impact studies would have to be carried out on the marine environment, wind impact and other ecological features. This would help stakeholders discuss the issue in an informed manner. This should be so obvious but, very often, we see quite the opposite, for example within the social media, where some people excel in appointing themselves experts of everything. The technical possibilities of development projects require much more than trigger-happy Facebook chats and impulsive decisions by vote-hunters.
This is not to say that public participation is not important. Far from it. Indeed, the participation of the public and various stakeholders can help broaden the debate and create a sense of ownership and belonging to the project, should it proceed.
Local councils directly implicated in this project should have a key role in this regard. The Valletta and Sliema local councils comprise the directly-elected representatives of the respective localities and are directly involved in the day-to-day issues facing residents, businesses, tourists and others.
Let me mention just one example that readily comes to mind. The public beach under Tignè Point is becoming increasingly popular among locals and tourists alike. How will this be impacted by the development of a bridge?
Sliema and Valletta are also characterised by the increased use of bicycles and hats off to that. Given that bicycles comprise clean, light transport, would it be possible to give access to cyclists on the bridge? In the affirmative, what boundaries and limits should be established on usage?
It is by now evident that this development proposal would require a social impact assessment. Mixed sociological and other social-scientific methods should consequently analyse, monitor and manage the intended and unintended social consequences, both positive and negative, of the proposal. It would give considerable importance to dimensions such as culture, perceptions, community, health, well-being and personal and property rights.
The bridge proposal could indeed serve as a case study of truly transparent, democratic and sustainable policymaking. Malta is crying for such processes.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Dark side of best of times

Times of Malta 21 August 2017

Slavery: a word belonging to the past, yet so alive today. Illegal everywhere, yet present in all corners of the world. And increasing, too. Indeed, in every country there are people working for little or no pay, yet, who must do this due to threats, debt and violence. They are denied of freedom because their lives are practically controlled by other people.
Slavery make take place in various forms. It can be present in labour camps, the sex industry, domestic work and sweatshops. Given that it is often hidden from the public sphere, it is difficult to produce accurate figures on how many people are involved in it. Nevertheless, some research organisations, institutions and non-governmental institutions are doing their utmost to present an accurate picture of modern slavery.
For example, the global slavery index estimates that about 45.8 million people were victims in 2016. The countries with the highest estimated prevalence, in proportion to their population, are North Korea, Uzbekistan, Cambodia, India and Qatar. The countries with the highest absolute numbers of people in modern slavery are India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan. It is important to note that, in this regard, several countries produce low-cost consumer goods for markets around the world.
The same index concludes that the countries with the lowest estimated prevalence of modern slavery in the proportion to their population generally have higher economic wealth, higher levels of government response, higher levels of political stability, lower levels of conflict and greater willingness to combat slavery. These include Luxembourg, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Another important report was published recently by the US Department of State. It focuses on the trafficking of people in 2016.
The report refers to Malta and states that people are trafficked to the island for sexual and labour purposes. The island is also identified as a source of trafficking, meaning that people are also trafficked to other countries. It refers to women who are trafficked, primarily for sexual purposes, from countries such as China, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Russia and Ukraine.
The Department of State also refers to the trafficking of Maltese women and children and to the ‘internal’ trafficking of people for sexual purposes.
The report also refers to precarious and abusive labour involving workers from China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, women from south east Europe in domestic labour, women from China in massage parlours and women from central and eastern Europe working in nightclubs under exploitative conditions.
The Department of State adds that about 5,000 irregular migrants from Africa work in abusive conditions in construction, hospitality and other private activities.
Malta was also mentioned in the Modern Slavery Index 2017, which highlights the increase in modern slavery within Europe. It was listed as one of the 20 EU member states were the risk of modern slavery has increased over the past year.
These eye-opening reports makes it clear that the government of Malta is not conforming to minimum standards to combat the trafficking of people.
What is stopping the government from commissioning studies to collect evidence on people at risk or involved in such abuse? The government can also conduct educational campaigns and push for more police presence in the field. Apparently, only two investigations and two prosecutions took place in Malta last year. In 2015, the corresponding figures were five and seven respectively.
These shocking reports are really food for thought and action, especially when one considers the government’s propaganda strategy to depict Malta as experiencing some golden age. Let us not be dazzled by glittery adverts and seductive spin. Beyond the hyperreality of economic growth, glitzy PR and primetime news on mundane topics, there are people living in miserable conditions in an island state measuring a grand total of 316 square kilometres.
Let us also not allow the government and its allies to label all those who question certain policies as belonging to some stone age society. I myself am liberal but liberalism without social justice and communitarian responsibility can result in social breakdown and exploitation.
Considering that the government is proposing policies on areas such as prostitution and strip clubs, we should be vigilant to read beyond the spin.

Monday, August 14, 2017

A maritime sociology


Some years ago, I encountered the curious world of maritime sociology. It transpired that maritime sociology covers a broad range of topics, fields and issues. These may intersect with other sociological areas such as family, employment and environment, but they may also have commonalities such as their interest in seaside and maritime areas.
Given that Malta is a small island in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea, maritime sociology should be of interest to scholars and policymakers. Some facts can help. Malta’s territorial waters are 14 times bigger than the country’s land area, and the 25-nautical-mile Fisheries Management Zone is almost 40 times of the land area. Malta’s coastal zone is almost one fifth of the country’s surface area, and the coastline extends 273 kilometres.
According to Eurostat, Malta is a European high flier in terms of unloaded goods and international intra-EU marine transport. In the second half of 2016, Malta had 1.4 million kilograms of registered fish landings and Malta is also a Mediterranean protagonist in the fish farm and cruise liner industries.
A conference held in Malta some years ago featured statistics by the Net Mari Med project, which estimated that the marine and maritime sectors contribute to almost 15 per cent of Malta’s gross domestic product, and that this is expected to increase. Around 40,000 persons (25 per cent of Malta’s workforce) are employed in coastal tourism, water sports, fishing and fisheries, and Malta has one of the largest merchant ship registers in the world.
In this regard, the term blue economy has become mainstreamed in the vocabulary of institutions such as the European Union and the World Bank.  It commonly refers to economic activity in the maritime sector, and it is often aligned with the concept of sustainable development, thus adding social and environmental dimensions to its meaning.
This can take us to the realm of sociology in general and Maltese sociology in particular. There are so many aspects of the marine sphere which are of interest.
For example, given that the maritime sectors provide so many job opportunities, it is important to verify who is being employed and under which conditions. Who works in bunkering, yachting, mooring? Are trade unions involved? How many workers are on fixed or temporary contracts? What are the nationalities of workers? How do they interact with each other and with significant others such as family members?
If we had to look at maritime communities such as fishermen, we can research their aspirations, challenges, opportunities and threats. In this regard, Alicia Said has researched the artisanal activities of small-scale fishermen. Others can research fishermen employed with big business companies. Malta also has its own fishing cooperative, fish shops, markets and other spin offs.
The bluefin tuna industry has recently captured the public imagination due to the slime issue. As early as the mid-1990s, the late Maggie Borg had already warned that this type of industry could have negative environmental impacts. I myself researched the political dimension of bluefin tuna fishing as part of my doctoral thesis.
As we all know, the sea around Malta has also become a main route of irregular migration. Maria Pisani and Mark Micallef carry out research in this area, which is characterised by a myriad of interactions involving death, new lives, exploitation, abuse, hope and fear, and by the governance of state and non-governmental organisations.
The politics of marine life is a fascinating area of research characterised by power networks, interests, and discourses. One can analyse the interaction of different stakeholders ranging from the European Union to environmental NGOs, and from fishermen’s representatives to the government.
One can analyse industries such as construction, cruising and fishing, but also micro-politics such as the occupation of space in public beaches. Think of the recent deckchairs and umbrella issue. Or the areas demarcated for swimmers and dogs.  Think of communities who live near fishing areas and beaches from Marsaxlokk to Sliema.
Maritime sociology is ripe for growth and institutionalisation. Similar to other areas such as small island states, this could well prove to be a niche sector for Maltese social scientists with global impact.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Not just about quotas

“How will your baby affect your chances of being prime minister?”  This question was asked a few days ago to Jacinda Ardern, the new leader of New Zealand’s opposition. Needless to say, this raised controversy and captured news headlines around the world.
To me, this shows that when we discuss gender equality, we need to think beyond quotas and whether a prime minister is male, female, gay or black.
Sure, having politicians come from different social backgrounds can be symbolic of broader changes taking place in society.  But evidence-based policymaking will point out a wide range of factors which contribute to inequality.
Some feminists, for example, argue that even in societies which prize gender equality, women may experience inequalities such as prejudice over women’s capabilities, responsibilities and potential.
In various cases, women employed in the labour market end up facing double (or triple) shifts when they face a heavy burden of housework. And often, family responsibilities have a greater negative impact on women than on men whenit comes to matters such as promotions at work.
In no way am I trying to play down social policy achievements of various countries in this matter. For example, the Nordic welfare states of Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland are often referred to as ‘women-friendly’ welfare states. Here, personal autonomy is not burdened by one’s gender, and work-life balance policies have helped reduce various inequalities.
These include equal pay for equal work, prohibition of employment discrimination based on one’s gender, public provision of childcare and various reforms in family and pensions legislation.
In Nordic and other liberal democracies, there has also been a gradual increase in women in politics. This has taken place due to a variety of factors, which also include quotas. Indeed, according to quotaproject.org, more than 100 countries have some form of political quotas, though this also includes voluntary quotas imposed by political parties.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has made it clear that he wants a parliamentary discussion on gender quotas in the near future. Some political party and civil society players have already declared themselves in favour or against. They obviously have every right to declare their positions, though I do hope that they consult with social-scientific evidence and experts before rushing with conclusions on the social media.
In this regard, I appeal for the widening of the remit of the gender equality debate. Some examples have already been touched upon in the public sphere. For example, Malta’s parliament does not have family-friendly working hours. And by the way, there are many Dad politicians, too. Others have referred to the need for updating policies related to violence, abuse and reproductive rights.
On a more optimistic note, some emphasise that there is a growing number of women in Malta’s labour market, that females are outperforming malesin education, and that policy reforms such as childcare are helping improve gender equality.
But I think that other aspects related to gender inequality are being elbowed out of the debate. Some matters have to do with social justice. For example, is the national debate giving enough importance to ‘invisible’ women in various employment sectors? I don’t think so. Here I am referring to women with low wages in regular jobs, women in casual or precarious work, and women with no union representation.
Would it be right to celebrate the entry of a minority of women into the pinnacles of politics and employment, when so many other women are facing difficult social circumstances? Does the fact that some women make it to the top suffice to declare gender equality? Are gender neutral legal provisions the be-all and end-all of policymaking?
I would answer in the negative. Indeed, I believe that discourse on gender neutrality and quotas should not alienate us from realities such as one’s social class, age, nationality, situations and so forth. And by the way, there are exploited men too: likewise, many happen to be politically voiceless.
Thus, when new policies are discussed, let us keep in mind that society is not simply made up of monolithic genders. Different persons may have different possibilities, experiences, interests and choices.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

The Planning Authority has failed

A few days ago I was interviewed by Kevin Schembri Orland, The Malta Independent, about the Planning Authority, development and the property market. You can check it out here.