Towards the Improvement in Working Conditions for Older Workers: Empirical Evidence from Maltese Companies

7. Appraisal of the Initiatives by Companies and Workers

The initiatives were met with a positive response both from the companies and the workers. The former all behaved positively towards older workers, showing that they believed in them, so much so that they chose to improve their working conditions, creating schemes specifically for them (such as recruitment initiatives), or for all workers, not discriminating for or against the older workers because of their age (such as training initiatives). In all five Maltese companies, the older workers appeared to be valued and appreciated, and in some cases, like Dial It-Telepage, they are considered to be more loyal to the company than younger colleagues.
It is not surprising, therefore, that this last company intends to increase the number of older workers, who generally repay the confidence placed in them by the company with considerable loyalty and sense of belonging. This applies, in particular, to older female workers, who appear to be satisfied for two main reasons: firstly because they have been able to find a job (a very significant fact, in the light of the extremely low national employment rate for older women); and because they can choose their own working hours, so they are able to juggle their time (through part-time work) and dedicate themselves not only to their jobs, but also to the family or other activities, including voluntary work, which are also very important (Giarini 2005: 21). Lastly, workers say they are also satisfied to see the company trend that allows them to continue with their professional lives even beyond retirement age (by not dismissing the workers, as allowed by the law). This Dial It-Telepage policy is certainly an exception to the more general Maltese company reality.
Older workers recruited at ELC and at the Park Hotel through the TEES also appear to be satisfied with the experience, since the scheme has guaranteed them re-entry to employment in positive conditions. One advantage for the workers is that of being able to have training periods (at different times) with more than one company. A worker recruited by the ELC for example, had previously completed training periods with two other companies through the TEES, then finally decided not to continue with that type of work, because it did not meet expectations. He is happy now with the ELC and is repaying the company’s confidence in him with considerable motivation at work, as was emphasized by company representatives.
The effectiveness of the scheme also emerged in the words of the worker recruited by the Park Hotel, who says that he has succeeded in returning to the employment market after various disappointments when looking for work and before entering the TEES, having been discriminated against by companies who considered him too old.
As far as other initiatives are concerned, Motherwell Bridge is satisfied with the high quality of the training carried out, confirmed by the workers themselves (and, in particular, by those coming from other Maltese companies operating in the same sector), who recognize that at Motherwell Bridge it has been possible to achieve better quality training compared to that offered by competitors. The older workers are also satisfied because they are fully aware of their strategic importance, as recognized by the company, in that they possess experience and know-how to transmit to younger workers, and this is regarded by older workers as an important ‘mission’ to perform.
Heritage Malta management is also totally satisfied with the objectives attained through the training activities initiated in 2003, which mean they are now able to count on more motivated staff who are more loyal to the company and committed to their work. After mental resistance by the older staff to the initiative in its initial implementation period (when they could not understand what the company meant by a change in mentality in work), the situation appears considerably improved. This is thanks, above all, to a greater attention paid by the company to communication with its workers, through which it has succeeded in conveying with greater clarity the purpose of improving working conditions through the training programmes proposed.

8. Conclusions

This first empirical research underlined that in Malta the issue of working at a mature age is starting to be approached at the company level, but this is only the beginning of a process, with ample scope for development since there is a need for a more efficient regulatory structure than the one currently in existence. Moreover, the social partners involved (government, unions, employers’ organizations) do not appear to be integrated as a system, notwithstanding ‘networking’ attempts to do that, as in the case of the White Paper. While a more positive sign in that direction was given by employer representatives (MEA 2005a, MEA 2005b, MEA 2006), the same cannot be said for trade unions, which seem to be playing a rather marginal role (Principi and Lamura 2007a).
As far as regulations are concerned, the Maltese government has concentrated mainly on the question of reforming the pension system, but although retirement age has been raised and this is undoubtedly considerably positive, as indicated above there are still some regulatory contradictions to be solved in order to guarantee older workers better work prospects and conditions. An example of this, also mentioned above, is the law on employment discrimination, even if it contemplates a series of undoubtedly favourable provisions for older workers, such as the obligation for companies to prefer access to employment and worker training to all ages of workers for those caring for families (another theme given priority at European level: Naegele et al. 2003), offering adequate leave and remuneration for this purpose. In reality, however, notwithstanding the fact that the government says that it is committed to prolonging the professional life of workers close to retirement age (Ministry for the Family and Social Solidarity 2006b), there are often cases of wrongful dismissal of older workers, early retirement decided unilaterally by the companies, and little participation of older workers in training programmes (Formosa 1999, Fortuny, Nesporova and Popova 2003: 34, Government of Malta 2004: 29).
So there is a dual problem of the absence of an adequate legal framework and, at the same time, (at least in part) the lack of implementation of existing laws. It appears evident, moreover, that in the absence of support from the unions and workers’ organizations, innovative positive policies for older workers in fields like health and well-being, ergonomics, flexible working, training, transition to retirement, can only be realized with difficulty, and only sporadically, thanks to particularly enlightened company schemes (like that of Dial It-Telepage). Indeed, it is no coincidence that the company policies which have been most successful for older workers have been those for recruitment, which were given most backing by the government through the ETC. At the present time there appears to be a lack of a real company culture as far as age management of employees is concerned, proved by the fact that the age question rarely influences the schemes at all, or is even explicitly considered.
As far as future prospects are concerned, the Maltese government has set itself specific objectives in terms of increasing the employment rate for women and older workers, with most recent projections appearing positive. The rate of female employment should rise to 45% by 2010 and to 55% by 2020 (Ministry for the Family and Social Solidarity 2004: 9, Pensions Working Group 2004b: 122, Ministry for the Family and Social Solidarity 2005: 52). an increase in the employment rate for older workers is also expected (Ministry for Health, the Elderly and Community Care 2006), given that the retirement age has now been raised to 65, and in the near future might be raised further, to 68 (Schwarz, Musalem and Bogomolova 2004: 17-18).
To achieve these two objectives and to improve working conditions for older workers in a more organized manner, numerous proposals have been made. From the various suggestions made, the following are worth reporting:
1.    offering incentives to companies through new regulations or political measures (Technical Team to the Pensions Working Group 2005b: 11; Gonzi and Diamantopoulus 2001: 7 and 22; Ministry for Competitiveness and Communications 2006: 29; Ministry for the Family and Social Solidarity 2006a: 30);
2.    discouraging early retirement policies; reducing tax on the salaries of workers aged over 55; shortening and making working time more flexible for those over 55, on a full salary (Mifsud 2005);
3.    supporting every type of measure with the objective of placing older unemployed workers in the employment market; allowing workers to remain active even beyond legal retirement age through a reduction/flexibility in working time; creating the right conditions to command a better qualified and more committed workforce (MEA 2005a: 3 and 5, MEA 2005b: 5 and 6; Technical Team to the Pensions Working Group 2005b: 9; Ministry of Education 2006; MIM 2005: 3-4);
4.    enhancing knowledge and skills in older workers, providing them with appropriate on-the-job training (UHM 2001; Ministry for the Family and Social Solidarity 2006a: 30);
5.    ensuring that older workers have a working environment that takes into account their health and well-being needs (Ministry of Education 2003: 4).
Thus, there is no shortage of material for institutional debate, but there are obvious problems involved in putting all these good intentions into practice at the company level, above all in the public sector. In this area, in fact, due to ‘cultural’ attitudes, there is evidence that employees often report a particular ‘lack of motivation’, frequent absenteeism (which, if on the one hand could be linked to such lack of motivation, on the other hand in the case of older workers could also be the consequence of age-discrimination towards them at work — Berger 2004: 513; Shah and Kleiner 2005), a frequent incidence of a ‘second job’ (usually hidden), and a particularly high rate of invalidity given as a reason for early retirement.11
In Malta therefore, even though awareness of the need to deal in an organized way with the ageing workforce issue has increased over the last few years, as shown by the measures already taken in this respect (especially in the pension context), there are still many contradictions within the system. This is found both at statutory level and in general in the attitudes of the different employers, who, notwithstanding the aforementioned commitment to the contrary pointed out by the Maltese Employers Association, continue to dismiss older workers when they reach legal retirement age. These contradictions must be resolved as soon as possible, to ensure a systematic approach towards improving a process which will otherwise be difficult for companies to manage independently. The positive examples provided prove that it is possible to achieve excellent results by intervening at the company level. It will now be necessary to operate in a more structured way, starting from these examples, to be able to extend the initiatives in a non-sporadic way to other Maltese companies.

9. Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (© 2006, Wyattville Road, Loughlinstown, Dublin 18, Ireland. Original language: English), which enabled us to carry out the comparative survey on which the national study presented in this article is based. We should also like to thank Michelle Vigar of Outlook Coop in Malta, as well as Paul Borg and Raphael Scerri of the Maltese Employment and Training Corporation, for their precious help during the research.

11 To limit abuse of recourse to these pensions, an Invalidity Pensions act is about to be implemented also with the attempt to increase the employment rate of older workers (Ministry for the Family and Social Solidarity 2006a: 32-33).

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