“We work together and understand each other”

Somali asylum-seeker Timo and his manager Jonathan talk to UNHCR Malta about working in a multicultural team.

Malta, January 2019. Timo, from Somalia, and his manager Jonathan, from Malta.
© UNHCR/Joanna Demarco

P. Cutajar & Co Ltd. is a large import and distribution company in Malta. Like many other local employers, the team consists of people seeking protection in Malta. Timo, a 24-year-old Somali employee at P. Cutajar, tells us about his work experience in Malta, whilst Jonathan, Timo’s boss and warehouse manager, explains the importance of communication and his experience with recruiting refugees and asylum-seekers.

Please note: This interview was conducted in January 2019.


Timo, from Somalia

Can you tell us a bit about your work experience with P. Cutajar?

The people at P. Cutajar are like my family. It is good to meet people who care about you, help you.  We are very close to each other and always work as a team. The most important thing for me is that we work together and understand each other. We all speak English. Sometimes we also try speak in Maltese.

Were you given any support to integrate at work?

When I started in the store, the staff helped me every day. If I didn’t know something, I would ask them and they would tell me, show me and also spend time with me to learn. I now do the same with new guys at work who want to learn.

How was your experience finding work in Malta?

Before I started with P. Cutajar, it was difficult for me because I was without a job. However, I went to Jobsplus, where I gave them my CV. They interviewed me and tested my speaking and writing skills. English is important, since they needed a person who can understand the boss. I was very lucky because five minutes after leaving Jobsplus, they called back telling me they found work.

For me the biggest challenge was when they asked me for certificates. Because of the civil war [in Somalia], I could not finish my education.

My education is still in my mind, but I have nothing to show. The moment I arrived in Malta I got a lot of experience. I worked as a cleaner, starting from the bottom and working my way up. I do not have a high-level job, but I am in a good situation. I now have work experience but also life experience. I learnt how to manage myself and live independently.

How did you find out about the services of Jobsplus?

When I used to live in Marsa Open Centre I used to help the people living and working there. I used to help them with translation and interpretation. The people who work there explained to me that the easiest way to find work is to go to Jobsplus.

Do you have any advice for refugees and asylum-seekers in Malta looking for work?

First of all, when you leave your country and come to a new country, you need to adapt and study the people you are living with. Being close to the people and learning from them makes things much easier.

I advise refugees and asylum-seekers to attend English courses so it will be easier to be social… I also personally try to learn Maltese. You need to learn the language to build a future. It will make things easier and improve your life as well.

Malta, January 2019. Timo and his colleagues at work. © UNHCR/Joanna Demarco

Jonathan, from Malta

Some companies struggle when working in a multicultural team. Do you take any measures to make sure everyone on the team feels welcome?

The important thing is guiding other people. Explaining the different cultures, way of living, religious beliefs. It is important for me to educate everyone. Apart from Somali refugees we have Italians and also Americans. There are many nationalities working within the warehouse. The important thing is to try make everyone feel comfortable and part of the team. If a social activity is being organised everyone is invited to join and most of the time everyone attends. Using some words in Maltese, some in English, accompanied by a  few hand gestures here and there we manage to communicate and joke with each other.

How was your experience recruiting and training Timo?

For recruitment we used the Job Brokerage office* in Marsa. We started off with four workers, but then singled out two individuals who showed immediate interest and hired them on a full-time basis. I found the Job Brokerage office very efficient. We use this service quite often, as it is a means to test the capabilities of individuals.

Have you had any other experiences recruiting asylum-seekers or refugees?

When it comes to recruiting asylum-seekers it is a bit difficult since you need to renew the work permit every three months and the three months pass by quite fast. It is like as soon as he gets used to work he would need to take leave to go to Jobsplus to renew the work permit.

Do you think that working in a multicultural team can have a positive impact on the attitudes of co-workers towards asylum-seekers and refugees?

The refugees and asylum-seekers working with P. Cutajar have integrated so well that the CEO sent a letter to all staff expressing appreciation to everyone’s effort towards integration. There can be individuals with slightly negative attitudes, however the majority are so well integrated that such attitudes are the exception and it would be that employee [with negative attitudes] who feels singled out and not vice versa.

When a person starts to share information or life experiences, I noticed that the attitude starts to change… People start to relate.The character remains no longer flat and people start to relate and realise that we are all the same, just coming from different contexts.

Once the person understands that refugees and asylum-seekers are here seeking refuge, they realise that they appreciate the same things, such as safety.

Do you have any advice to employers/managers struggling to cope with cultural differences in the workplace?

A person during Ramadan might tell me that he needs to go pray, or that he needs to fast and therefore has less energy. Different people have different requests. Locals also have their own requests where they need to take personal time off.  Everyone has his own needs and beliefs. I try to adapt and so do they. We find a compromise keeping in mind the outputs we need to reach.

Whilst explaining Malta’s work culture one needs to understand that there are different cultures. What is most important is to communicate and try find a way forward. At P. Cutajar everyone is treated equally. We treat everyone the same irrelevant of your status and where you are from.

*The Job Brokerage Office was set up in order to tackle the problem of irregular work and the exploitation of workers. Irregular forms of work result in precarious conditions for refugees, beneficiaries of international protection and failed asylum-seekers. The office was therefore introduced for service-users who require occasional labour market services for a period ranging from a few hours to a maximum of 600 hours annually. Through the introduction of this office, the Government aims to forever spare migrants the indignity of waiting for roadside offers of precarious work.


Note: A version of this article also appears in Building Communities, a UNHCR Malta magazine published in January 2020.