Robert Abela’s Sunday sermon yesterday will have gone down like all other Sunday sermons. It tickled people’s confirmation bias, realigning people to the convictions they were born to. Perhaps a handful might have been curious to see if Robert Abela would react to Times of Malta’s story that morning. They should have known better than to expect a reaction from the prime minister to a scandal that would rock his government if and only if he were to make the mistake of acknowledging it exists. In this country, if you pretend the shark that is chasing you is not there, the shark won’t bite you.

It’s interesting to read about what Robert Abela did not say. Often, it’s far more interesting than anything he does say. Perhaps not this time.

Robert Abela announced that the government will be publishing rules to regulate temping agencies that are the vehicles through which thousands of people, mostly from South Asia, have been imported to work to transport food, on construction sites, in catering, and in healthcare.

Robert Abela was reacting to several things there. On the surface he may have been reacting to people feeling sympathy for the imported workers who are paid poorly, overworked, and forced to live in substandard conditions. He may have been reacting to trade unions complaining that an underpaid imported labour force is depressing salaries both for them as well as for indigenous labour.

More likely Robert Abela would have been pandering to the racist lament that there are too many brown people, and the government doesn’t seem to be doing much to keep this sun-burnt island and its cloudy ethnic soup of native inhabitants free from the contamination of coloured inferiors. I’m sorry I’m adopting the rhetoric that light brown Maltese people borrow from Nazis to describe people of a slightly darker shade of brown but without that discourse it’s hard to understand the significance of Robert Abela’s political choices.

From Times of Malta’s reports here are some statements Robert Abela made yesterday.

“Speaking on One Radio, Abela said the government will be introducing new legislation to regulate employment agencies that import foreign workers.” The prime minister may or may not have intended to suggest that such legislation does not currently exist. It does. The Employment Agencies Regulation has been in place since 1996 and is absolutely in force. In force, but not necessarily enforced.

They may have forgotten it’s there because since it was first introduced in 1996, the regulation was updated in 1997, 2007, 2010 and 2012. A small update in 2016 came with the renaming of the old ETC to Jobsplus which was a find and replace job, so they probably never noticed making the change.

“’The reality is anyone could wake up one day and decide to open a temping agency, just like that, and this was happening at one point,’ Abela said.” If by “one point” he means some time before 1996 then the prime minister has a point, as it were. But of course, since he’s not teaching an employment law history course his remark is at best misleading.

Since 1996 not anyone could wake up one day and decide to open a temping agency. They would need a license from the Director of the National Employment Authority. They still do. The regulations establish what competence an employment agency must recruit and retain in its staff to keep the license and what conditions it must satisfy to get it in the first place. So here the prime minister made a false statement.

“’Serious agencies will be incentivised and, as a government, we will support them. But those that work in an abusive manner should watch out…’,” the prime minister went on. “’We need to have rigid and right legislation…’”

If a law exists, then one can only really be said to be ‘working in an abusive manner’ if they are in breach of that law. Are they? And if so, what’s stopping the National Employment Authority from enforcing the law and withdrawing these licenses? Or has the Authority been tolerating temping agencies working without the license required by the law?

Times of Malta’s report of yesterday’s comments refers to remarks made by Andy Ellul some time ago who had said that “unlicenced temporary employment agencies could be barred from bidding for public contracts.” Does that mean they have so far been allowing unlicensed temporary employment agencies bidding for public contracts? It seems to me that it does.

Because here’s a bit of news. The regulations that exist today do not allow licensed employment agencies from bidding for employment contracts. The regulations say that employment agencies cannot arrange for recruitment in any entity set up by law or in which the government holds a controlling interest.

Of course, government agencies go around this by not actually employing staff but instead hiring their employers on a contract of service. But that’s the government bending the rules, not the employment agency. If anyone is being abusive it’s the government itself.

If the government are serious about wanting to stop exploitation of workers, they can fill the vacancies with proper paid jobs under the terms of fairness and security provided for in the laws which they’re trying to avoid.

Imagine that. Imagine giving someone we need to clean our hospital floor or to administer medicine at our public hospital, flown from Kerala for the purpose, secure employment in Malta’s public sector including security of tenure and the same rights enjoyed by all other employees under the collective agreement negotiated by the union that represents them.

Imagine that. The government wouldn’t have to make new laws, just enforce ones we’ve had for decades. Exclude cowboys not only from public contracts but from operating in the market at all (which the law already provides for, if only they would enforce it). Ensure everyone is paid decently (which the law already provides for, if only they would enforce it).

And as a government be an exemplary employer, recruit people according to the law, with attractive and secure employment decision without regard to race and origin but merely that the recruited person satisfies the requirements of the job they are hired for.

Imagine that.