In social media-savvy Malta, artisans are opting for a more traditional approach to sales

In social media-savvy Malta, artisans are opting for a more traditional approach to sales

Cane furniture maker Alfred ‘Freddie’ Saliba pictured in his workshop in Hamrun, Malta on 1 November 2018.

(Daiva Repeckaite)

Be responsive and ‘engage’ your followers. Be present on multiple platforms. From hashtags to video formats, constantly educate yourself about the latest trends. ‘Like’ and comment on the posts of others so they will ‘like’ and comment on yours. With these rules and a thousand others on how to ‘conquer’ social media, the digital space can feel intimidating for the small business owner or freelancer; workers who, either by choice or as a result of market pressures, have carved out a tiny niche to sell their products and services. But can they subsist beyond the digital hype?

Cab driver Vince Zahra does. A 73-year-old who has been in the business for several decades, he has consistently drummed up enough business to support his family – without the help of digital cab hailing apps or social media. Zahra says that if he wanted more clients, he would simply leave his business cards in more hotels, an increasing number of which are mushrooming all over the Maltese capital of Valletta. “As long as God gives me health and wakes me up in the morning, no problem,” he tells Equal Times. While he accepts requests for early-morning airport pick-ups and drop-offs, he avoids working late nights. Uber has not entered the Mediterranean archipelago, but independent drivers successfully compete with its local copycat, Uper, and the pan-European Taxify platform, both of which are active on this car-dependent island-state.

According to Eurostat, Malta tops the list of countries in European Union with the largest share of enterprises using social media (a 74 per cent share compared with 68 per cent of Danish, Irish and Dutch enterprises). Even senior citizens (aged 65-74) are active on social networks in Malta, with over half of this demographic as active users (the third-highest share in the EU after Belgium and Hungary).

Across Europe, various digital platforms have become intermediaries for self-employed individuals to be hired, tracked and ranked as they work.

A report published in 2018 by Eurofound, Employment and working conditions of selected types of platform work, noted that 10 online platforms distribute work for 98 per cent of all platform workers in the countries studied. In Italy, 22 per cent of residents have found work this way. From plumbing to tutoring, from building to design, work is increasingly mediated by the internet, and Eurofound researchers found that 2 per cent of the working-age population in 14 European countries primarily relies on such platforms to find work.

Although some workers interviewed by Eurofound appreciated the flexibility of the so-called platform/on-demand/gig economy, it was also noted that the fraying of traditional employment relationships has weakened workers’ rights, leaving workers without everything from health and safety protections to collective bargaining rights to a decent work-life balance.

In 2016, the European Commission issued a communication – A European Agenda for the Collaborative Economy – to clarify how labour law should be applied to the collaborative economy, but making sense of the gig economy is like trying to hit a moving target. According to Vaida Gineikytė, a senior researcher at the European research and analysis centre PPMI, which carried outmultiple surveys for EU institutions to find out about the working conditions of these internet-reliant workers, the gig economy becomes more difficult to define each year: “[In 2017], it was clearer to see where platform work begins and ends. Now there are platforms for charging batteries or cleaning cars. In France, people without social security collect electric scooters [in cities] and charge them at home, hired by some student for half the price he or she gets from the platform.”

And in Malta, there are 33,000 self-employed individuals, mixing traditional and digital marketing methods to please consumers, nearly a third of whom review products and retailers on social media. An additional two-thirds check a product online before buying, according to recent research. Yet the small size of the population (approximately 436,000 people nationwide) and traditional appreciation for community-based recommendations allows many service providers to invest minimally in their online strategy.

For Sergio Muscat, who runs an upholstery business in the town of Hamrun, the maze of unpredictable social network algorithms is just not where he finds work. “I have Facebook, but I don’t use it for my work. I make some jobs, and whoever likes my work and my prices comes back.” Muscat has been in business for over 20 years and it’s his happy past clients that do his marketing for him. “I have more [commissions] than I can make. I have one part-time worker, but my garage can’t afford more people,” Muscat says smiling as a neighbour enters his workshop and attests to the quality of his work.

Artisans: the first gig workers?

While the gig economy continues to swallow up some of the jobs that used to be under secure employment contracts, independent craftspersons worked on a ‘gig’ basis long before the digital shift. “By learning a profession, one learns also how the product is portrayed and presented, spoken [of] and imagined by the community of practitioners s/he decided to join,” Michele F. Fontefrancesco, a Durham University crafts anthropologist who researches ritual, industrialisation and globalisation in crafts, wrote in response to questions from Equal Times.

“The internet has opened a full and wide emerging field of the market for craft objects. Digital platforms, such as Amazon, eBay or Etsy, have allowed artisans to find a bigger audience and public for their creations. To face this market, though, artisans needed and need to expand their knowledge to new fields, such as digital marketing. Thus, rather than a transformation in techniques of production, what I noticed is a change in the marketing strategies.”

Paul Agius has been a carpenter for 51 years. “I make everything – balconies, kitchens, doors, everything you want with wood. Without reklami [advertising], nothing. The neighbours tell [one another], and they come here. At the moment I’ve refused six or seven balconies, because I don’t want to make anymore. I want to retire.” Around 1,500 residents in Malta are self-employed manufacturers like Agius, or like Alfred Saliba, known as Freddie, who has been producing intricate cane items – bags, furniture and decorations – for 60 years.

His ancient trade is dying; not because of marketing ‘disruption’, he says, but because the material, imported exclusively from China, has become too expensive.

“I’ll finish what I have and then I will have to close. This antique trade is going to finish in Malta completely,” he laments.

Saliba and Muscat are listed in Malta’s Yellow Pages, a printed book as well as an online directory. The heavy book, delivered to every household in Malta, has listings of 45 upholsterers, including Muscat, and nine cane furniture makers, including Saliba. Many other businesses add their Facebook pages and QR codes to the usual contact details, but the craftspeople who spoke to the Equal Times, as well as others in their business, did not bother. “[This listing is] just for clients to find my number when someone loses it,” Muscat explains.

In the run-up to Christmas, various craft markets crop up around Malta. Many artisans print promotional materials with their Facebook pages on them. Zen D’Amato Gautam, founder of Thrivers Malta, a social enterprise which helps artisans market their work, believes that face-to-face and online efforts are complementary. She works with artisans as young as 13 as well as people in their sixties.

For all generations the most effective way to find customers, in her observation, is “at markets during a popular occasions or holidays such as Christmas, Mothers’ Day, Easter, Valentine’s, or during popular festivals.” Staff of the Valletta Design Cluster, a co-working space in the making for people in the creative industries, are toying with the idea of an offline community noticeboard in multiple spaces. In social network-savvy Malta, numerous groups are simply taking word-of-mouth online, where users of all generations seek recommendations for the best service providers available.