20 - 26 June , 2001
By Miriam Dunn
Steps should be taken to at least ensure the customs department is kept open with a skeleton staff on full days during the summer months, to enable industry to operate competitively, the secretary general of the Federation of Industry, Edwin Calleja, said yesterday.
The issue of whether the half-day practice in government departments can be retained in an ever-growing competitive, global market has long been a sore point in the business world. And observers have also questioned whether the unions are concerned about annoying their members, when voicing support for the retention of half-days, rather than genuinely being against the principle of doing away with the practice.
Mr Calleja stressed that business operators were not calling for the complete eradication of half days in government departments, rather that sufficient human resources should be made available to provide certain services that are deemed essential.
"For example, at the customs department, entrepreneurs are having to pay extra to release merchandise urgently, such as samples or machinery parts, just because the goods arrive on a summer afternoon," he said. "The federations viewpoint is that taking into account the vital role played by a customs department on a small island like Malta, the current set-up needs to be reconsidered."
Mr Calleja admitted that although industry has been pushing for change on this front for a number of years, no one seems to want to tackle the issue, including those appointed at a ministerial level.
"In the meantime, industry is already paying through the nose for overtime which customs workers are doing at other times, but finding a resistance from improving the situation during summer from certain people, which is far from satisfactory," he said.
Asked to comment, the secretary general of the Union Haddiema Maghqudin, Gejtu Vella, said the union was aware that changing market trends and the growing need for industry to be competitive needed to be taken into account when looking at working terms and conditions.
"In fact, although in principle we feel strongly about government employees retaining summer hours, there have been instances in the past where we have worked on negotiating a better deal for workers in departments where it has been decided that a service needs to be provided, and they have therefore had to change their working timetable," he said.
Asked whether he accepted that the notion of half days was now unrealistic as Malta works towards being competitive in a global market, Mr Vella said he believed efficiency and production stemmed from good management and ensuring workers gave their utmost, rather than solely the length of time spent at work.
"We should remember that the issue of half-days in the public
sector always comes up at the beginning of summer," he pointed
out. "I think most important is to identify the needs of a department
and the consumers difficulties rather than make sweeping statements
about what is required."